- Codie Bascue is from a town in New York that few know and even fewer have been. Now, the fearless bobsled driver prepares for his Olympic moment with his hometown in mind.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It is among the most enduring joys of the Olympic Games that any home can produce an Olympian. That home can be north of the Arctic Circle in Norway or south of the Equator in Kenya. It can be in Jamaica or Japan, France or Finland, or pretty much any other two countries, alliteratively paired for narrative propulsion without dulling the truth. It can be a bustling metropolis or a tiny village. The Olympics aspire to not discriminate, except by performance. If you are good enough, you can wear the uniform, you can march in the Opening (or Closing) Ceremony and you can compete for medals. You can dream of standing atop a three-level podium and hearing your national anthem.
You can even do this if you are from a place called Whitehall, N.Y., home of Codie Bascue, the 23-year-old who will pilot both the No. 1 two- and four-man bobsleds for Team USA at the 2018 Olympics. Whitehall is a village of just over 2,600 residents, hard by the Vermont border, 230 miles north of New York City and 150 miles south of Montreal. It is one of five cites and towns that claim to be ``The Birthplace of the United States Navy,’’ and while the Department of the Navy takes no stand on the issue, the other four (Philadelphia, Providence and the Massachusetts towns of Beverly and Marblehead) can buzz off. Whitehall lies in a narrow valley between small ranges of the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east and the Adirondacks of New York to the west, at the northern terminus of the Champlain Barge Canal, which connects the Hudson River to Lake Champlain (and where Benedict Arnold launched a fleet of ships in the fall of 1776 and engaged the British in the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, the earliest action by any American maritime force. So there).
Whitehall is also a village battered by time and economics, left behind as many of its neighbors recast themselves as destinations for skiers and leaf-peepers. Nearly a third of the town’s households live below the poverty line and the population has been halved in a century. A small coterie of dedicated adults struggle to keep the town alive and to serve its young people. Codie Bascue, who, it needs to be said, technically is from Dresden, a tiny address just to the north of Whitehall, whose residents attend Whitehall schools, is the town’s first Olympian. That factoid alone makes his presence here unlikely, but so do many others.
*If any of this sounds familiar to readers of this byline (thank you, by the way), there is a reason. I am also from Whitehall, though nearly four decades before Codie. I was in high school a couple of years behind the grandfather who introduced Codie to bobsledding, and who is integral to his story. I played hours of pick-up basketball with his uncle. Last fall I wrote a story about the town where I was raised and the football team that bonded us together, as many other Whitehall teams had done. Codie shared many of those same experiences, many years later.
And I will say this: On Feb. 8 here at the Games of 2018, a young guy from Whitehall sat at a long table with other members of the U.S. bobsled team, a full-fledged Olympian. And it was pretty damn cool.
But this is not my story. This is Codie’s story. But it is linked to the village we share, and even tangentially to a sport we both played. Codie has a tattoo on his back: It is a full-sized facsimile of his high school football jersey, No. 13, running from his shoulder blades to just above his waist and the name BASCUE below the neckline. He is a serious young man, and the tattoo is not a flight of fancy. It has meaning. "It’s not just a football jersey tattoo," he says. "I’ve always been very proud of my last name and my family and where I came from. Not a lot of people think you can come out of a place like Whitehall and actually make a name for yourself. But you can, if you follow your dream."
The number 13 represents not just his jersey digits but his uphill climb. "I’m a superstitious person," he says. "People say 13 is unlucky. I use that number to flip it over. That’s my superstition."
There is nothing lucky about Bascue’s presence here, leading the top two U.S. sleds. He is here because he was first exposed to bobsled as an eight-year-old and showed instinctive and fearless driving brilliance as a young teenager, on one of the gnarliest runs in the world, the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic run in Lake Placid. "Bobsled is a violent and scary sport," says Steven Langton, who rode with the late Steven Holcomb to double bronze four years ago in Sochi and sits in Bascue’s four-man sled. "But Codie has been doing it for so long that it’s his normal. There are Olympic and world champions from Europe who shudder at the Lake Placid run. But it’s Codie’s normal."
And he is here because over the last five years he has taken the body of 5' 9", 175-pound high school fullback who would never be athletic enough to sit in a world-class bobsled—regardless of driving skill—and transformed it. The driver has to push, too, and pushers are beasts. Bascue now weighs 205 pounds and squats 540 pounds, among the best on the team. "You could tell he was going to be a great driver when he was really young," says Todd Hayes, who drove the Team USA four-man sled at the 2002 Olympics to a silver medal and is one of Bascue’s first mentors. "But he just didn’t have the physical ability. I’m still not sure he has the physical ability. He’s gotten stronger, but he can’t run fast or jump high. But through some physical anomaly, he pours every ounce of his physical ability into pushing a bobsled.’’
There’s another way to put it. "He loves the sport of bobsled," says Langton. "And he’s done everything possible to squeeze every ounce of ability out of his body."
And another: "He’s a gamer, pure and simple," says Sam McGuffie, the former reserve NFL player (``I’ve butted heads with Tom Brady,’’ he says by way of validation) who will sit in both Olympic sleds with Bascue.
Codie Bascue’s bobsled story begins more than three decades ago. His grandfather, Alan, now 64, was a high school football player in Whitehall, like so many of us. He was a two-way lineman on the school’s unbeaten 1971 team, one of the best teams the town ever produced. After high school, he became an automobile repairman, and in his early 30’s, he took over a vending machine business. (Alan lived on Blue Goose Road in Dresden, a few miles north of Whitehall proper, very much in the country. For a while he owned a then-famous bar called the Blue Goose Tavern, or, for short, "The Goose," where Whitehallers of a certain age spent long nights shooting pool and drinking cheap beer. But I digress. Codie was also raised in a house on Blue Goose Road.)
Alan had always been fascinated by bobsledding. ``I don’t even know why, really,’’ he says. "I used to watch Wide World of Sports when I was a kid and it became sort of a dream of mine. He joined a crew of like-minded weekend warriors and started working on sleds and sliding at Mount Van Hoevenberg on the weekend. "Recreational bobsledding," he called it, which belies the danger. He was a regular when the U.S. began recruiting athletes including Herschel Walker and Willie Gault to push sleds, and rode in sleds with those celebrities. He was in the sled when Mike Eruzione took his first—and likely, only—ride down the Placid run.
In the mid-2000s, Alan took a job managing the Whitehall school system’s bus garage. He also had an idea to start a youth bobsled program. "I was thinking, you know, if a kid has an Olympic dream, I’m not saying bobsled is easy, because it’s not, but it’s a small group of people competing for those spots." He put a bobsled in the school lobby to entice kids to sign up and more than 40 of them did. They pushed an old sled in the school parking lot on weekdays and made trips to Lake Placid on weekends.
Codie tagged along, beginning at age eight. And as other kids peeled off—“They would take off and say, `Mr. Bascue, I’m going back to the hut,’” says Alan—Codie became more interested. He was naturally inclined toward the adrenaline rush. “So bobsled was pretty perfect for me,’’ says Codie. “I fell in love with it.”
Codie’s father, Craig, 44, a fireman with the Glens Falls (N.Y.) Fire Department, says, “It was fun for everybody. Like Little League Baseball, only with bobsleds.’’
And Codie was good at it. He started in a junior, two-man sled. One day Hayes was at the run in Lake Placid when Codie was sliding. "All of a sudden I see this wild little teenager just flying down the track," says Hayes. "You could tell right away he could make the sled do things he wanted it to do." (A four-man bobsled weighs a maximum of 1,390 pounds; a two-man 860 pounds. Obviously, Bascue was driving a smaller, lighter sled as a teenager, but still, a heavy, awkward can of steel. There is no steering wheel; a bobsled driver uses two rings, one on the left and one on the right, connected to the runners. Steering requires a savant’s touch. Bascue had it from the start.)
At around age 15 (memories are vague), Bascue made his first run from Start Three, about two-thirds of the way up the massive hill. His grandfather was at the bottom waiting, when he heard the loudspeaker screech: "Code 81," which means a sled has crashed and tipped over on its side, endangering and—presumably—scaring the daylights out of everybody in the sled. Alan went running up the hill to check on Codie. "As I’m getting there, you can hear Codie and another boy just hooting and hollering," says Alan. "By the time we got there, the people at the crash site said, `They’re already in the truck heading back up to the top.’’"
Codie says, “When I started in bobsled, they told me crashing was part of the sport. Once I got the first bad one out of the way, I had no problem with it.’’
A year or so later, Hayes pulled Codie aside and pointed to a painted logo on the ice in the 180-degree Turn 11. He told Codie to put his sled a foot above the logo as he came down. Codie did exactly that, and slingshotted out of the turn to the bottom. "Wow," Hayes said to Alan. “Even I wouldn’t dare put a sled up that high.’’
By 15, in 2009, Codie had been selected to train with the U.S. North American team in Canada. “That’s when I realized I might have a chance to do something pretty cool,’’ he says. He kept playing high school sports. “My friends thought the bobsledding thing was a little weird,’’ says Codie.
In the fall of 2011, Whitehall reached the sectional final, against powerhouse Cambridge, with the winner advancing to the state tournament. After the game, Codie and his father drove non-stop to Park City for training with the U.S. national team. Codie was severely concussed while returning a kickoff in the second quarter. He didn’t play anymore, but still got into the car, bound for Utah. “I don’t remember anything until somewhere in Ohio,’’ he says. He recuperated for a week in Utah before driving again.
After graduation from high school in 2012, Codie stayed in Whitehall and commuted to Lake Placid for training. He washed dishes at an Italian restaurant in town and drove a boat that harvested weeds from the water in South Bay, at the bottom of Lake Champlain. He worked parttime as a landscaper too. In 2014, he was invited to live at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, but until last year, also held a job bagging at a Hannaford grocery. At 19, he missed the Sochi Olympic team by one spot. “On the outside looking in,’’ he says. “Broke my heart.’’
But he kept climbing. And kept training. In November, he and McGuffie won a World Cup race in Lake Placid. Two months later he was named to his first Olympic team. He is unusually young for a driver, because most drivers start as pushers or brakemen, often after college and other athletic careers, and work their way to the front. Codie has always been a driver.
He pulled his family together to give them the news and everyone cried buckets. “This was my dream,’’ he says. “But I never imagined I would be driving the USA-1 four-man. Never.’’ Like so many members of the U.S bobsled team, he lives with the memory of Holcomb. “In my opinion, Steven was the greatest bobsled driver in history,’’ says Codie. “I picked his brain so much. I felt close to him. I miss him.’’
Back in Whitehall, a beleaguered small town has thrown itself behind Codie. Lawn signs decorate the village and banners are hung from storefronts and light poles. WHITEHALL/DRESDEN SUPPORTS OUR OWN CODIE BASCUE. USA OLYMPIC BOBSLED TEAM. His unlikely success infuses them with pride. An old town is many things, but now, and evermore: Home of an Olympian.