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Vancouver bobsled preview

SI.com's writers will preview each event from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Here's David Epstein's look ahead to bobsled.

Despite what you remember from Cool Runnings, the Jamaicans aren't going to dominate here like they did on the track in Beijing -- they won't be in Vancouver after failing to make the cut. And bobsledders don't practice in a bathtub, either. That wouldn't help much in a sport that is second only to luge as the fastest at the Winter Games.

But there's plenty to love even without the Jamaicans. U.S. bobsled pusher Steve Mesler said it best: "We're going 95 miles an hour with no shocks and no struts. You've got big football-player guys and the risk of injury. Speed, violence, big guys in too-tight clothes -- what more do Americans need?"

To add to the speed and violence, the course in Whistler is far and away the fastest one in the world, thanks in part to a steep top section that includes a 20-degree drop at curve two. Curve 13 was dubbed the "50/50 curve" after a day of course testing last year when only half the teams made it through right side up. If you're the type who watches NASCAR secretly anxious to see a crash, this might be the year for you to check out bobsled.

In Lake Placid last March, the top U.S. four-man sled won the World Championships for the first time in 50 years. The sled was piloted by Steve Holcomb, 29, who finished sixth in the four-man in 2006 in Turin. Pushing the sled were Justin Olsen, 22, who played a year at tight end for Air Force before leaving the academy; Mesler, 31, a former all-SEC decathlete at Florida; and Curt Tomasevicz, 29, a former Nebraska linebacker.

"The Night Train" bested the German sled piloted by André Lange who, between two- and four-man, has three Olympic and eight Worlds gold medals since '00. As always, Lange will contend for gold. For the two-man, add Swiss drivers Ivo Rüegg and Beat Hefti to the gold hunt along with Lange's countryman Thomas Florschütz and Canadian Lyndon Rush.

On the women's side, 32-year-old Shauna Rohbock, a member of the National Guard in the Army World Class Athlete Program, won silver in the two-woman in Turin, and silver at '09 Worlds in Lake Placid. Last season, both Rohbock and Erin Pac, 29, drove to medals, first and third, respectively, at the only World Cup event held at the Whistler course, which will host the Olympics. Both will have to contend with Germany's Sandra Kiriasis, the defending Olympic champ who has won three of the last five two-woman world championships, as well as with German Cathleen Martini, who has been tearing up the World Cup circuit with five wins in seven races.

Holcomb and the Night Train have a legitimate shot to end America's 62-year gold-medal drought in the four-man, and Holcomb could contend for gold with Tomasevicz in the two-man as well. Driver John Napier, 23, has been in a bobsled since he was 8 -- his father was the president of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation -- and grew up watching VHS tapes of East German drivers. Napier has been coming on strong, winning his first World Cup medals at Lake Placid in November, a gold in the two-man, ahead of Holcomb, and silver in the four-man.

Rohbock, with pusher Michelle Rzepka, is the best chance for gold for the women. U.S. women took first (Rohbuck), third (Pac) and sixth (Bree Schaaf) at the Whistler World Cup event last year, which means three sleds will be in the medal mix on the challenging course.

The U.S. Night Train team is friendly with Lange off the course, but considering the U.S. beat him by nearly a full second over four runs at the '09 Worlds, the German bobsled legend will be out for revenge. As Mesler put it: "Lange's like the Tom Brady of our sport. He's not used to losing like that."

For the women, the U.S. and Canada will be trying to crack the German stranglehold on bobsled glory. They'll have their work cut out for them, as Kiriasis and Martini are first and third in the World Cup standings. The winners of the other two were Rohbuck and Kaillie Humphries of Canada.

Humphries has no two-woman world championship medals to her credit, but the 24-year-old is currently second in the World Cup, and, like the other Canadians, will have an edge in a sport where experience on the home course is of paramount importance. Some teams complained that Canada was restricting access for foreign teams to the Olympic course and thus un-leveling the playing field, so expect a bit of grudge match between Canada and the world.

Holcomb almost gave up the sport after a degenerative eye condition called Keratoconus -- in which the corneas bulge outward -- nearly left him blind. By '07, Holcomb's eyesight had deteriorated to 20/500, and he had already burned through the strongest contact lenses available. In '08, doctors implanted lenses made of a special polymer behind Holcomb's irises, and now he has the best vision on the team.

As his eyesight was deteriorating, though, Holcomb learned to drive based on the pressure he feels in his legs and hands, and he credits that for some of his success. "If you have to wait for visual cues," Holcomb says, "you're not going to react as fast."

• Napier, like Rohbuck, is a member of the National Guard serving in the Army World Class Athlete Program, which provides support to top athletes. Napier, though, has requested to serve in Afghanistan following the Olympics.

Eddie Eagan won gold in 1932 as a member of the U.S. four-man team. He also won gold in 1920 as a light-heavyweight boxer, making this son of a poor Denver family who would go on to Harvard Law School the only person ever to win gold in two different sports in the Summer and Winter Olympics.

Two-Man: Feb. 21Two-Woman: Feb. 24Four-Man: Feb. 27

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