Steven Holcomb nearly fell victim to suicide before bobsled success
Steven Holcomb's story of triumph over physical adversity was a highlight of the Vancouver Games, an everyman guy piloting the U.S. four-man team to its first Olympic gold medal in men's bobsledding since 1948. But before the champion driver conquered an eye ailment that nearly stole his vision and ruined his career, Holcomb nearly gave in to the darkness of suicide. To hide his disease from friends and teammates, he withdrew into isolation and never let on that it had reached a critical stage. In his new book,
The book details much of what was already known of Holcomb's story. He grew up in Park City, Utah, one of the two places in the country (Lake Placid is the other) that has a regulation course for sledding events, and he humbly tells everyone that along the way that he encountered a remarkable run of luck and happenstance that enabled his success.
"I wanted to be an Olympian since I was tiny," he says, "But I thought it might happen in skiing or at least something other than bobsled."
His first stroke of luck occurred before he was even involved in the sport. When he was 18, Holcomb and his father happened to drive past Bill Tavares, an athlete who just happened to have his sled sticking out of his pickup truck. Holcomb had seen those before, but it convinced him to attend a tryout camp. He took the sport's standard eight-point test of strength drills and sprints to see if he could make national team. The cutoff for the national B team was 675 points, and Holcomb scored 675 exactly.
"They took the top eight pushers and I finished eighth," he says, "But I was only 18. They told me they were taking the ninth guy because he was older, more experienced. I thought, 'Okay, that's how it is.'" But when another sledder got hurt, Holcomb moved up one place and became one of the team's push athletes.
Holcomb was brought on board veteran driver Brian Shimer's four-man crew, but Holcomb suffered a hamstring injury that knocked him out of the 2002 Olympics. Since he wanted to be part of those Games held where he grew up in some way, he learned how to drive, and helped out as a forerunner -- a driver who wouldn't need to push but could allow organizers to test the course and equipment before competition begins. The injury, in effect, enhanced Holcomb's flirtation with driving, and ultimately compelled his switch to the position in the sled that would make him a world and Olympic champion. It was another stroke of luck.
At the time, he began having manageable issues with his vision, nothing a non-driving push athlete couldn't handle. In 2000, he had gone in for lasik surgery to improve the vision, but actually exacerbated the problem. As his vision deteriorated, Holcomb went to one specialist after another without results. The once outgoing chatty socialite withdrew, not wanting to let people know he wasn't able to see routine items clearly.
He faked his way through the eye tests in annual physicals for the bobsled team by memorizing the first few lines of a chart on the wall. "F-E-L-O-P-D," he says as if the deception was still right in front of him. "D-E-F-P-O-T-C. I had it down. If I strained and hesitated just enough, it wouldn't be too obvious. But honestly I could see any of it. Nobody caught on ... When people came up to me I could tell who they were by their voices, their shuffles."
Even with his worsening vision, Holcomb's driving was improving. He was navigating by feel, sensing every bump and undulation of the tracks and anticipating turns as they came up on him. His two and four-man sleds became more competitive internationally, and his four-man sled reach sixth at the Turin Olympics in 2006. Still, Holcomb was becoming more reclusive.
But it wasn't just the eye test. Holcomb had been a very social kid and teenager, but his teammates only knew him as the sledder who hunkered down in his room and passed on invitations to hang out. What if somebody asked him about that last play of the football game they were watching on the flat screen? What if they wanted him to play darts? What if an acquaintance started talking to him in a noisy room where he couldn't distinguish the voice very well? Everyone knew he wore contacts. But he'd wear what he called his "bullet-proof glasses" as infrequently as possible.
"They were gigantic," he says. "They were a giveaway. If somebody walked in on me when I was wearing them, I took them off right away. People knew I had them; they just didn't know how bad I needed them."
Most of all, he feared that his deception could one day injure a teammate. "I couldn't see. I felt I was putting lives in danger," he says. "How do you deal with that?"
Holcomb tried, but felt increasingly isolated and guilty. One night, after attending a sponsor event, he swallowed a bottle of 73 pills and washed them down with Jack Daniel's, figuring he would end his misery and simply never wake up. He slept for 12 hours and was stunned to find himself alive. Yet again, another stroke of luck.
"I wasn't upset," he recalls. "It was more, like, what did I just do? Why did I do that? Why it hadn't worked, I didn't know. It was a miracle. It was a second chance. I needed to seize every moment I had to do something in life. There must be something else left to accomplish in life."
At that point Shimer was then coaching the team and tried to snap Holcomb out of his funk one day, but Holcomb snapped. "I have bigger fish to fry," Holcomb said.
"Why, what be bigger than training for the Olympics?" Shimer responded.
Holcomb says he finally blurted out the truth as a knee-jerk reaction. "I'm going blind," he told Shimer. "I have to retire."
Shimer now understood.
By then Holcomb had been correctly diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative thinning of the cornea that was distorting and ultimately ruining his vision. He saw a dozen specialists who recommended corneal surgery, a procedure that would have knocked him out for at least one Olympic cycle, even if it worked -- and "worked" likely entailed freezing the effects of the ailment so it wouldn't get worse, but not necessarily correcting Holcomb's vision.
Perhaps Dr. Brian Wachler was his lucky 13. Wachler told Holcomb that he felt he could fix Holcomb's vision impairment with a two-step procedure. In the first, his eyes received a vitamin solution that reacted with light and kept his vision stable. In the second Wachler numbed his eyes and then placed lens behind the irises of his eyes. When Holcomb went into the office that day, Wachler asked him if he could distinguish details on an adjacent wall. "No, I can't even tell that there is a wall," Holcomb answered. At the end of the operation, he saw details clearly. "It was a new life," Holcomb says. "I had forgotten what life looked like and suddenly it was life in high definition."
Holcomb was back, but ironically the same procedure that corrected his vision made him driving worse before it was better. "I wasn't driving by feel anymore," he says. "I could see snow falling, paper flying by, people standing on the side, lines of the other drivers. I was thinking of too many things." So he fixed the problem by choosing not to clean his helmet, leaving the blurring effect of snow and dirt on the glass, so he could see less of what was in front of him.
Once he found the right combination of visual and sensory cues to guide him, Holcomb began tearing up the circuit. He won world and Olympic titles in the four-man sleds, and last winter he captured gold medals in both the two and four-man sleds at the world championships in Lake Placid. He will likely be a favorite for more hardware at the Olympics in Sochi next winter.
He has become the cheery, approachable face of his sport that is gradually growing in popularity. But he had kept his depression secret even from family before starting his book with writer Steve Eubanks two years ago. In the summer of 2011, an Olympic teammate, aerial skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, took his own life at age 29.
"Speedy's death made me think about it," Holcomb said, "but the first person was the writer. I hadn't told him about it or anyone. I thought it was something I'd take to my grave. Then I just said it."
As Holcomb shared his thoughts, his words about depression sounded a caution for those around someone in trouble. "If someone's struggling," he says, "ask another question... I was lucky to get a second chance."