US ends bobsled drought as former Army athlete wins bronze in two-man
By Elliott Almond | San Jose Mercury News (MCT) | Published: February 17, 2014
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Bobsledder Steven Holcomb tried to hold it in.
He wore a stoic face when it should have been red with pain.
America's best bobsledder was aching after straining a left calf on the second of four heats in the two-man bobsled competition at the Sanki Sliding Center.
It wasn't clear whether Holcomb would make it to the starting line Monday to face his moment of destiny.
"I knew when his name was called, he'd be ready to go," brakeman Steven Langton said.
Holcomb, 33, wasn't about to walk away with a medal on the line.
USA-1 was just fast enough on a technical, curvy chute to become the first American sled to win a medal in the two-man competition in 62 years.
Holcomb hit the the milestone four years after ending another 62-year drought in the four-man competition when winning the gold medal at the Vancouver Games.
"If anybody else has a 62-year drought they need to break, just let me know," Holcomb said. "We'll try to help you."
Perhaps the Chicago Cubs should arrange a lunch with the drought buster.
In a dramatic night at the track, Alexander Zubkov of Russia won the gold medal in his final two-man race, while Beat Hefti of Switzerland took the silver.
Holcomb held off fast-charging Russian Alexander Kasjanov by a mere .03 of a second to earn America's first medal in the event since Stan Benham and Pat Martin won a silver medallion at the 1952 Oslo Games.
"A medal is a medal," said Holcomb, who won the two-man World Cup title this season. "I'm going home an Olympic medalist. That's pretty bad ass."
Holcomb's drive only added to his compelling narrative after 16 years in bobsledding.
The Park City native who was a ski racer before switching to sledding almost had to retire seven years ago because of a degenerative eye disease that causes distorted vision and can lead to blindness.
While unable to compete in 2007 he became so depressed he attempted suicide by swallowing 73 sleeping pills with whisky.
A rare operation led to 20/20 vision but Holcomb discovered seeing better hurt his driving.
In a sport where the senses are magnified, Holcomb drives by feel as much as sight, having figured out a track's subtleties to avoid mistakes while barrelling along at 85 mph.
"He gets it, he gets the sport," said Monterey's Nick Cunningham, who finished 13th.
USA-2, piloted by Yucaipa's Cory Butner, was 12th.
U.S. coach Brian Shimer, who was part of the American team that ended a 42-year medal drought at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, didn't think his guys could do it Monday after the injury.
The four-time Olympian figured everything would have to go right for a medal at the Sochi Games. When it didn't, "it was pretty dismal wondering if he could go," Shimer said.
Holcomb had other thoughts.
"Four years to get to this point, I'm not going to let a little calf booboo stop me," he said.
Team physicians worked deep into the morning hours to keep the muscle from spasming. Holcomb received acupuncture, kinesio tape and muscle stimulation.
The Americans debated through lunch whether to withdraw to save Holcomb for the four-man racing this weekend.
They decided to let Langton do most of the pushing off the start.
"I would have carried the sled down the start ramp if I'd had to," Langton said.
Shimer expects the driver to recover in time to defend his four-man gold medal.
But Holcomb wasn't thinking about defending his gold medal Monday night. He also wasn't thinking about the painful calf when starting the third run that kept him in medal contention.
"When you're sitting in third place, you can deal with a lot more pain than you think you can," he said.
An hour after the victory, Holcomb had a spring in his gait. He threw a hefty bag full of his racing gear over his back as he departed.
Shouldn't someone have been carrying his equipment considering the tender calf muscle?
Holcomb laughed at the thought of a personal sherpa.
Nothing like an Olympic medal to ease the pain.