PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Steve Holcomb was here last year for the Olympic test event, finishing up another bemedaled bobsled season, checking out the track and the podium. Same as he did in Vancouver, same as he did in Sochi.
“It’s something we talked about a lot coming into this year,” said Carlo Valdes, who was Holcomb’s brakeman last year. “He was so excited to get here and be part of this with us and share that experience with us.”
And then Holcomb was gone at 37, dead in his sleep in his room at the Lake Placid training center in early May. “This year has been really hard for everyone,” said Sam McGuffie, who also pushed for Holcomb last season. “He was a brother, a friend, and he’ll be greatly missed from now until eternity.”
It wasn’t that the US hadn’t won medals before Holcomb arrived at Olympus. During the “fat guys in football helmets” era in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, the Americans perennially put a couple of sleds on the podium. But from 1948 until 2010, they didn’t win gold.
“No more 62 years,” Holcomb declared after he’d piloted his jet-black ‘Night Train’ screamer to victory on Vancouver’s treacherous ‘Elevator Shaft’ run. “We’ll start the clock over. Now it’s going to be four years.”
Four years ago in Sochi, Holcomb came up with double bronzes that probably will be upgraded to silvers now that Russia’s Aleksandr Zubkov has had his two golds stripped for doping. Thus has the level of expectation been raised for the US sledders as it is for the Germans, Swiss, and Canadians.
“After [Vancouver] it was one of those moments when not just the athletes but everyone in the world was, ‘Wow, the US can do this!’ ” said Steve Langton, the Melrose native who was Holcomb’s brakeman in 2014 and who’s competing in his third Games. “People started to expect that and strive for that and, knowing that it was achievable, not settle for anything less than that. Gold is always the goal.”
Gold here would be an enormous achievement, given Germany’s dominance at last year’s world championships, where they won five of six medals in two-man and four-man, and on this year’s World Cup circuit, where they swept the four-man standings.
After Sunday night’s first two runs of the two-man competition the Germans were in first and third places with the Canadians in between. The Americans were all but out of medal contention. Justin Olsen, who underwent an emergency appendectomy here just before the Games, was in 12th with Nick Cunningham 24th and Cody Bascue 25th.
This is a transition season for the Americans, who haven’t made a Cup podium since the season’s first two weeks in November, when they won five medals on home ice in Lake Placid and Park City. Bascue, their top driver, ranked eighth in four-man and 13th in two-man.
“Going into the season we were all a little worried and a little lost, not knowing how it was going to be without [Holcomb] because he’s been with us for so long and been a big part of who we are today,” said Bascue. “But we all approached the season trying to do this for Steve and use it as motivation to do well.”
To honor him, his teammates wear Holcomb’s initials in the shape of a Superman logo on their left sleeves as well as bracelets supplied by USA Bobsled. “It’s a simple rubber band but it’s something you never take off,” said Cunningham.
“Most of us got into the sport because of Steve Holcomb, had success because of Steve Holcomb. The biggest memento is the memories he left us that we carry in our hearts and that we’ll carry to the starting line.”
It wasn’t just the Olympic medals that created Holcomb’s legacy. It was the season-after-season excellence at the global level. From 2009 through 2013 his sleds won half a dozen medals at the world championships, including three golds. He also claimed World Cup combined titles in 2007 and 2010 and produced 18 individual Cup victories.
“He was a mentor to every one of us, whether you were on his sled or a competitor,” said Cunningham. “He was always there. My biggest accomplishments in this sport, the memories I’ll take from here, are Holcomb’s victories, not even my own. Celebrating an Olympic gold medal. Winning double bronze. Watching them overcome adversity. It was a testament to him as an athlete and a person.”
Holcomb’s enduring impact probably was the unprecedented spotlight that his Vancouver victory brought to a sport that McGuffie likens to “being put in a dumpster and kicked down a flight of stairs.”
“Bobsled is a niche sport,” said Langton, who ran track for Northeastern before becoming a sled dog. “Most people here knew ‘Cool Runnings’ before they knew anyone who competed or anything about the the sport. So that gold medal and millions and millions of people seeing it, young athetes, many of whom are here today — it was huge for drawing talent to the sport and getting awareness out there.”
Had he lived, Holcomb, who’d survived a degenerative eye disease and depression to become one of the sport’s biggest stars, probably would have been on the line here as a contender at his fourth Games. His death only has reinforced his teammates’ resolve.
“It’s created more than a team,” said Cunningham “We’ve become a brotherhood. We all were suffering together, and the best way to honor that legacy is to carry it on, to always be that threat on the hill.”