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Olympic Bobsleigh

Once nearly blind, suicidal, Holcomb drives U.S. to historic bobsled medal

Photo: Bob Martin/SI

Driver Steve Holcomb and pusher Steve Langton won bronze Monday, the first U.S. two-man bobsled medal in 62 years.

SOCHI -- When the bobsledders came to Sochi Town this week, the Sanki Sliding Center took on a theme-park quality. Alongside the twisty-turny, up-and-down thrill ride track, you could almost hear a carny barker working the midway: “Come see Cool Runnings II and the Bob Marley flags! . . . Watch Monaco-1 -- [three-time Olympian] Prince Albert in a can! . . . Don’t miss Johnny Quinn, escape artist and world’s strongest man all in one!

Steve Holcomb, who drove the USA-1 two-man sled to the bronze on Monday night, breaking a 62-year American medal drought in that event, can clown with the best of them. Or at least he did four years ago in Vancouver, where he broke another 62-year medal drought by winning a gold medal in the four-man.

Holcomb was the guy who, after half the sleds crashed at the same spot during a training run, once taped a homemade sign above the track that read CURVE 50/50. And the guy who, in a takeoff on the Digital Underground hit “The Humpty Dance,” would break into “The Holcy Dance” for the benefit of a teammate’s video camera.

But the feat that Holcomb and pusher Steve Langton pulled off in Sochi comes with a much more sober storyline.

Holcomb’s vision problems are well documented. Since childhood he has suffered from keratoconus, a degenerative bulging of the corneas that leads to streaked and blurred vision. By the time he hit his mid-20s, the condition had reduced his eyesight to 20/500.

Holcomb didn’t consider traditional corneal surgery an option, for it would have required a two-year hiatus from the sport he loves. Plus, as he has put it, “one good thud during a run, and my [reconstructed] corneas could fly right out of my head.”

But a year before the Vancouver Olympics his vision cleared up thanks to an experimental procedure that involved lens implants, light therapy and vitamins.

The solution was a mixed blessing. Sure, Holcomb could see again. But poor eyesight had led him to an athlete’s sceptered place, where he drove by feel because it was the best sense at his disposal. Upon returning to the track he actually scratched up his visor so he would rely less on vision, a sense that leads to slower reaction time.

Then, after the glow from Vancouver had dimmed, Holcomb divulged a secret he had long held close. In his 2012 autobiography But Now I See: My Journey From Blindness to Olympic Gold, he told how low his lows had been. The absurdity of being responsible for three passengers in a sled going 80 miles an hour when he couldn’t even read a street sign began to sink in. One day in 2007, alone in a hotel room, he tried to take his life by washing down more than 70 pills with Jack Daniels.

Surgery, antidepressants, that gold in Vancouver and the catharsis of having told his story have since delivered Holcomb to a better place. “He’s a very quiet guy,” USA-3 driver Nick Cunningham said after Holcomb’s medal-winning ride Monday. ”I know how hard it was for him to really open up. You’re just happy that this is where he is now.”

For a number of hours last night and into this morning, USA-1’s bronze-medal position was a wobbly one. During the push at the start of the second of two heats on Sunday, Holcomb strained a muscle in his left calf. He clambered into the driver’s seat anyway and brought the sled home still in third place. But the run would easily be the slowest of four, and Holcomb limped off at the finish.

“What sucks is that you get in the sled and have a minute to go,” he said later. “You can’t jump out and say, ‘Ow.’”

Three medics worked on Holcomb into the small hours of Monday morning, administering acupuncture and electrical stimulation and wrapping the injury in kinesio tape. Coach Brian Shimer and Holcomb briefly considered withdrawing to allow Holcomb to rest up for the four-man competition this weekend. But that seemed crazy when you’re sitting third at an Olympics.

“That was off the table,” Holcomb said, “even before it was on the table.”

The U.S. team does secrecy with the best of them, even if paranoia in the bobsled world is usually reserved for things related to sled design. Everyone kept their counsel about Holcomb’s condition so as not to let rivals behind them know, as Shimer put it, “that there was blood in the water.”

To make up for Holcomb’s injury Langton knew that, as pusher, “I’d have to give every ounce of everything I had. It felt like a fantastic run. On every one of those 17 turns I was thinking, ‘That was good, that was good . . ..’”

In the end, USA-1 held off Russia-2 by three-hundredths of a second.

In reaction to the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Vancouver Games four years ago, Sochi organizers built a much slower, more technical course than the drag strip in Vancouver. The Sanki run is comprised of three uphills, with curves that include a notorious bending ascent where a sled will lose speed.

It was a driver’s track, to be sure -- but Holcomb called it “easy to get down, but not easy to get down fast.”

As a result, the competition rewarded bobsledders most familiar with the track. That threw a huge advantage to the Russians, who had run it more than 300 times compared to the Americans’ 40 or 45.

Alexander Zubkov, the flagbearer competing in his final Olympics, joined his pusher, Sochi native and professional arm wrestler Alexey Voevoda, to make the most of it. Russia-1 turned in the fastest time in each heat to easily win the gold over Switzerland-1.

“Bronze may seem like a step down from what we were expecting,” Shimer said. “But not considering the hurdles we had to get over.”

Holcomb will drive the top U.S. four-man sled, Night Train II, to defend his Olympic title in that event. Recovery time for a strained calf muscle is ordinarily four to five days, which should have him ready when competition begins Saturday.

For the moment, though, there was a medal to savor. “It’s my second broken 62-year drought, which is awesome,” Holcomb said. “Anybody else have a 62-year drought they need to break, let me know. I’ll help out.”

In several ways, these have been the Games of the Formerly Depressed. Some, like 1,000-meter speedskating gold medalist Stefan Groothuis of the Netherlands, will go home having scaled the highest heights. Others, like U.S. skeleton slider Katie Uhlaender, who missed a medal by .04 seconds, had their newfound emotional equilibrium put to a severe test.

But Holcomb’s despondency hadn’t been over a failure to win. He had been depressed at the prospect of losing his vocation and purpose.

And there, on the podium during the flower ceremony, stood an athlete no longer weighing tradeoffs between sight and feel. He was engaging a different sense altogether. Once, twice, three times, Holcomb buried his nose in the bouquet he had just been handed. Goldenrod, laurel, eucalyptus, chrysanthemum. “It’s kind of my thing,” Holcomb said. “You’ve got to stop and smell the flowers.”

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