The makings of a gold-medal team
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
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
With Bodine's friend and chassis builder
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
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.
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,
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
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.