SOCHI, Russia — The weight is off him now. The pressure to win the gold medal that had eluded American bobsled drivers for 62 years. And the burden of knowing that he was depressed and losing his sight and of not knowing how to deal with it.
Steve Holcomb comes to his third Winter Games as an Olympic champion and author of a book — “But Now I See: My Journey From Blindness to Olympic Gold” — that chronicles what he went through to reach the top stop of the podium in Vancouver four years ago.
“My life is literally an open book,” observed the 33-year-old Holcomb, who’ll commence another quest for gold Sunday night in the two-man competition, which no US pilot has won since 1936, when Hitler was handing out the medals in Garmisch. “It’s a little interesting having people you don’t know know everything about you. That’s tough.”
It also has been cathartic for a man who was so distraught he attempted suicide in a hotel room in 2007, washing down 73 sleeping pills with Jack Daniel’s.
There was no way to save his vision without ending his career, he believed. And he didn’t know how to talk about his depression.
“Depression is a big thing,” Holcomb said. “It’s so much bigger than people understand or believe. I kept it a secret. Nobody knew. I was very good at hiding it. People that I’m very close to had no idea. They just thought I was being a very serious athlete and staying focused, but in reality I was just withdrawn and depressed.”
Holcomb disguised his optical problem deftly, as well. He spent seven years in the Utah Army National Guard and qualified with a weapon. “I was a pretty good shot for being blind,” he said. The diagnosis was keratoconus, a degenerative thinning of the cornea that warps vision but that actually made Holcomb a better pilot because it forced him to steer the sled by feel.
“Drivers who drive by feel typically are better drivers,” he said. “It’s just the way it is. It’s not like I had some innate talent. Maybe I did, but I just had this special feeling. As my eyes got worse I was forced to drive more by feel and less by visual cues and it just worked out better for me.”
If the World Cup medals kept coming, did it matter that Holcomb might as well have been driving with his eyes closed? “That weighed on me a little bit,” he acknowledged, “but at the same time we were doing well. We were winning and when you’re winning that can outweigh a lot of other stuff. [My teammates] didn’t know my vision was so bad, but at the same time if they did know they were like, we’re winning so we don’t care. If we were losing, then we’d have a problem. We’d sit you down and say, look, you have bad eyes, you can’t drive. But we didn’t have that problem.”
Yet Holcomb understood that the more his vision diminished, the more his pushers would be at risk rumbling down an icy canyon hunkered down behind him. “Looking back, I wouldn’t have gotten into the sled with me,” he said. “I couldn’t see.”
Holcomb had visited a dozen specialists by 2008 and all of them told him he needed a corneal transplant. He’d decided to retire until team coach Brian Shimer, who’d competed in five Games and had won a medal, steered him to a California ophthalmologist who could perform an experimental procedure that might fix things, a combination of riboflavin and light followed by lens implants. The cure worked so well that it presented Holcomb with the opposite problem — now he could see too clearly.
So he compensated by scratching his visor. “And I was instantly back to where I was,” Holcomb said. “You still have to be able to see a little bit but my sensations are in my feet and my knees, my butt, my hips, my hands, my shoulders. The sled becomes a part of my body.”
Unit solidarity is critical for a military man, which is why Holcomb likes to keep the same crew together. The same guys who propelled him to the 2009 world title in Lake Placid, N.Y. — Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz — he kept with him at Olympus.
“You’re essentially going to war with these guys,” Holcomb said. “When you’re standing at the line you’ve got to look at the guy next to you and know that he’s going to give everything that he’s got for you, just as he knows that you’re giving everything you’ve got to him. You’re looking at hundredths of a second that can make the difference in a medal. If there’s any hesitation at the beginning you can’t just step on the accelerator a little bit to make up for it on the way down. So having a team that’s been together and that works together and that gets along really well is huge.”
When Holcomb and his fellow warriors got to the top of the “Elevator Shaft,” the headlong Olympic track at Whistler, British Columbia, they were primed for a breakthrough in their screaming all-black “Night Train” sled designed by Bo-Dyn. “You’ve seen these guys at the start,” Holcomb said. “They get insane, they’re screaming, going nuts. When they hit that sled and take off running and they jump in and we’re moving, they’ve done it so many times that they don’t even realize that they’re doing it. In Vancouver that was one of our biggest advantages.”
Holcomb and his crew won three of the four heats and dethroned Germany’s four-time defending champions for the first American victory since 1948 in St. Moritz, Switzerland. “No more 62 years,” Holcomb proclaimed. “We’ll start the clock over.”
He could have called it a career that day and come down from the mountain for good, but Sochi beckoned. “It feeds the fuel,” he said. “You win a gold medal, you want to win another one. We could have gone out on top, but at the same time . . . ”
Mesler retired so Holcomb picked up Melrose, Mass., native Steve Langton, a former Northeastern trackman who’d pushed for driver John Napier at the Games, and with Olsen and Tomasevicz they made the podium at the next three world championships, winning gold again in Lake Placid in 2012.
With Olympic veteran Chris Fogt replacing Olsen, who’s pushing for driver Nick Cunningham this season and Langton and Fogt alternating as his brakeman in the two-man, Holcomb has been on fire this season, winning nine of 16 World Cup events, including the first seven.
The “Night Train” has been succeeded by “Night Train Squared” (“a serious beast”) and BMW has provided a smaller and lighter carbon fiber two-man sled. “It’s no different than any other racing sport, especially like NASCAR,” said Holcomb.
On the Sochi track, which was made slower in the wake of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in Vancouver, driving skills will be paramount. Though Russian flagbearer Alexander Zubkov, who could drive the track blindfolded, won the first four practice races last week, Holcomb has been creeping up on him. “It’s hard to know what everyone’s doing,” he said. “Everyone’s trying stuff. You can even cheat in training if you want, you can do whatever you want to do. There’s a lot of mind games.”
But when the medals are on the line, Holcomb has a habit of getting to the bottom first. “I am a bit relieved this time,” he said. “I know what will be here in Sochi. I will have my gold from Vancouver. I will remain an Olympic champion. This time, I go in with a bit of an advantage.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.