WHISTLER, British Columbia -- You could see the signs, building in the subtle but unmistakable way that a low-pressure system gathers and roils before bringing the end of a drought -- in this case, 62 years without Olympic gold in the four-man bobsled. It ended Saturday, in spectacular fashion, to the clanging of cowbells omnipresent at such races, as StevenHolcomb drove team Night Train -- as USA 1 is known -- to the gold medal.
Some of the signs came long ago, those first winds foreshadowing the storm. Like the start of the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project in 1992, when NASCAR legend Geoff Bodine watched the U.S. flailing at the Albertville Games and decided he no longer wanted American athletes to have to raise their own money just to buy the sleds that Germans used and discarded.
With Bodine's friend and chassis builder Bob Cuneo as head engineer, 18 years later, the U.S. team has a sled garage in Lake Placid, N.Y., that houses 17 American-made sleds with proprietary American technology. The most obvious sign of the drought's impending terminus came adjacent to that garage, on the Lake Placid sliding course last year when the Night Train won the first world championship title for the U.S. in 50 years.
Even the ominous thunderheads that rolled in were ultimately pierced by sunlight. In 2001, Holcomb was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative eye condition that causes the corneas to bulge outward. By '07, and at first unbeknownst to his teammates, he was essentially driving blind, with vision that had deteriorated to 20/500. Holcomb's four-man team had finished second in the World Cup that year, which earned them a funding infusion that paid for training time at the track in Calgary in late summer. But, one day, Holcomb didn't show for practice. When BrianShimer, the head U.S. bobsled coach sought him out and asked why, "He said, 'Well, I've got bigger fish to fry'," Shimer recalls. "I thought, it took me five Olympic Games to reach that level when I could win a [bronze] medal [in '02], so when he said that, I'm thinking, what could possibly be more important than prepping for a great season when you just came off a great season?" The fish was Holcomb's impending blindness.
Contact lenses didn't come that strong, so Holcomb was, surely and not so slowly, watching the world fade away. "If I looked at trees," he said, "I would just see a bunch of green. I couldn't see leaves." But Shimer would not let his blue-chip talent walk away, so he consulted with a former bobsledder turned doctor who mentioned a progressive surgery. The next year, Holcomb had an operation to fix his vision in which lenses made of a special polymer were implanted behind his irises. By that time, though, necessity had taught him to consider the sled an extension of his body, and to drive by feeling the pressure exerted by the course in his arms, legs, and back, as opposed to waiting to process visual cues, which slows down a driver's reaction time. "Other drivers ask me how to steer a certain curve," Holcomb says, "and I can't really tell them. You have to feel it." On Whistler's tricky curve 11-12-13 sequence that bedeviled the world's top drivers at this Olympics, Holcomb felt his way through.
Sure, a bobsled team looks like a linebacker corps. But they aren't built in the same way. Not in America, anyway, where no one grows up with the sport. In America, four-man bobsled teams come together kind of the way the different fruits fall together in a row on a slot machine: with some underlying formula but a great degree of chance. Consider the three men who push the Night Train from the start. All college athletes at one time, they could easily have watched their athletic careers fade away with their school days, as most college athletes do. But something kept each of them going, all the way to an entirely foreign sport.
Steve Mesler, 31, was a decathlete at Florida. In 2000, with his track and field career behind him, he wrote a "To Whom it May Concern" e-mail to then-U.S. bobsled coach Greg Sand, listing his sprint and weightlifting stats. "I am ignorant in this respect to the sport," Mesler wrote, referring to what it took to be a bobsledder, but "I am looking for a new sport to be successful in." He was 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds at the time, scrawny in the bobsled world. But he had been training as a decathlete, not a bobsled pusher, and he knew he could change. "These marks may not be suitable for national team bobsledding," he wrote of his 450-pound squat, and 10.6-second 100-meter dash, "but if they are even close, I am very interested in learning more and training for the sport." A decade later, he is 212 pounds, but has not lost his speed. It's not everyday you hear a former All-SEC decathlete say that he only "got tough" after his decathlon career.
Curt Tomasevicz, 29, was already accustomed to fighting for his athletic career long after he could have let it slip away. In his sophomore year, Tomasevicz was one of three men, from a group of 120 hopefuls in his class, who were added to the Nebraska football roster as walk-ons. He stayed on the team as a linebacker and special teams player throughout college. So it makes sense that he wasn't afraid to fight for his place in a new sport. Tomasevicz grew up in Shelby (pop. 600), in central Nebraska, which, so far as sliding sports are concerned, might as well be Jamaica. It was in the Nebraska weight room in September of 2004, talking with AmandaMorley, a former hammer thrower on the Huskers' track and field team who had been recruited for bobsledding, when Tomasevicz's interest was piqued. Six years later, though the Husker strength program is nationally renowned, Tomasevicz, who is 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, squats 80 pounds more now (530) than he did as a Nebraska football player, and cleans 55 pounds more (375).
JustinOlsen is only 22. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he played a year as a tight end on the practice squad at Air Force, before deciding to leave the Academy. He went back to his native San Antonio and started working in a restaurant. It didn't take Olsen long to realize that, "basically, if I'm not competing, I'm not really happy," he says. So when his mom heard a radio add for bobsled tryouts, it wasn't a tough choice for Olsen to bag his restaurant career. He was quickly added to USA 7, but learned the sport as fast or faster than NFL players WillieGault or HerschelWalker had before him, according to Shimer, and he joined the Night Train in his second year.
And then, of course, there is Holcomb. He was a little different. He grew up in Park City, Utah, where winter sports abound. He started out as a competitive ski racer. But there was always a bobsled bug somewhere inside of him, waiting to creep out. Holcomb's father, Steve, remembers his eight-year-old son watching a video of Canadian bobsledders from the 1988 Calgary Olympics. The elder Holcomb took a look and said, "Man, how do they do that?" To which the son replied, "training, Dad, training." And then there was the time in 1997, when the Holcomb's bumped into BillTavares, an assistant U.S. bobsled coach, at a gas station. Tavares had a bobsled in his truck, and Steven nudged his dad to talk to Tavares and to get his phone number. Months later, Holcomb was breaking the news to his father -- who had already paid his tuition to University of Utah -- that he was leaving for Europe as a pusher for the U.S. bobsled team.
In 2002, Holcomb received the kind of wound that can fester until it becomes the compulsion that drives a great athlete: the Olympics were to be in Salt Lake City, with the bobsled course in his home of Park City, and he was not selected as a pusher for the team.
So he decided to drive. A lot. He needed 100 runs without a crash to be certified as a bobsled pilot, and he decided to cram them all into January 2002. He drove with anybody who was willing to get in behind him. A team physical therapist. A guy on break from sweeping the track. Holcomb's father took a half dozen trips before he decided that careening down an icy chute at highway speeds wasn't his cup of tea. "He was just learning how to drive," Steve Holcomb says. "It was like a 60-second car wreck." But he caught on with remarkable speed.
And then the final piece of the puzzle was simply team chemistry. Mesler was part of the four-man USA-1 sled in 2006 that came off strong world cup races but placed a disappointing seventh at the Turin Olympics. Mesler says that the ultra-intense leadership style of driver ToddHays, who won silver in four-man in Salt Lake City, did not bring out the team's best in the heat of Olympic competition. "With that team, you had to have your game face on at all times," Mesler says. The Night Train bunch, on the other hand, is as liable to be in the weight room doing clean and jerks as playing the video game Rock Band or talking Winter Olympic crushes. (Heads up, Tanith). And, of course, there's the now famous shuffling jig that Holcomb spontaneously breaks into whenever Mesler sings the "The Holcy Dance," his personal remix of Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance."
In the general seriousness and solemnity that pervades a bobsled start house, where large men are mentally preparing to hurtle down an ice track at 80-95 mph with no shocks, these guys sometimes standout for their sheer joyfulness at being a bobsled team. "We're not a middle school soccer team, just trying to have fun and eat orange slices at halftime," Mesler says, "but when stress goes down, cortisol goes down" -- he studied exercise science --"and performance goes up." With the Night Train's 2009-10 triple crown -- world championship, world cup title, Olympic gold -- his logic seems like genius.