From up top, Steven Holcomb can see all the twists and turns, the dips and inclines. He knows the tough spots and the good ones, too. Holcomb certainly battled through rough patches, but he has 20-20 vision now, so things have never been clearer.
His goals are lofty. He hopes to become the first American to win gold in the two-man and four-man bobsled at the same Winter Games. He also would like to become the first American in eight decades to defend his Olympic gold. His driving has never been more precise, and he heads to Sochi as the top-ranked two-man driver and second best in the four-man.
Regardless of his performance at these Olympics, Holcomb’s place in U.S. bobsled history is already pretty secure.
“Steve’s a legend,” teammate Chris Fogt says matter-of-factly.
That means Holcomb, 33, has already navigated the twists and turns better than so many others — both in and out of the sled. He persevered through a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus that threatened his vision entirely. He fought through mental illness and survived a suicide attempt. He has battled pressure and expectations at two Olympic Games. And he has overcome personal adversity and shared both his demons and successes with the world.
“There’s a bigger purpose for me,” Holcomb said recently, “and not necessarily winning a gold medal. As much as I’d like to think that’s my purpose, there’s other people I’m here to help.”
Holcomb published a book in late 2012 — “But Now I See” — in which he detailed some of his struggles. Just as he was becoming one of the sport’s top drivers, Holcomb’s vision was fading. His career was at risk, and life’s details blurred together. “I would recognize people based off their hairstyles, the clothes you wear, the way you walk,” he said.
Each doctor he would visit delivered a grim prognosis, and Holcomb fell into depression. No matter how well he performed on the track, he felt lost.
“Once it starts going, it just goes,” he said. “It’s like a snowball. Once you get in that bad way, it’s a chemical reaction in your brain. You just start to get down. It actually starts to feel good to feel bad.”
Holcomb’s livelihood was at stake. Vision is pretty essential when your job requires you to steer a sled traveling 80 mph down a tube of ice. Even at his lowest points, he kept his fears to himself, scared of the reaction he would get from teammates. “They’re not gonna hop on a sled with a guy who’s depressed,” he said. “That’s just weird. How can you be motivated to go win a race if you’re not even motivated to wake up in the morning?”
Holcomb was never the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but those around him could tell something was amiss. “There was that concern that maybe something’s going on with him,” longtime teammate Curt Tomasevicz said. “But he’s the type of guy where if you approach him about it, he’s going to say, ‘No, I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.’ The more you pressure him about it, the more he’s going to close up.”
Declared legally blind, Holcomb felt he had no choice but to retire. Still, he kept searching. In 2007, he met with Brian Boxer Wachler, a Beverly Hills, Calif., ophthalmologist who was familiar with keratoconus, which weakens the cornea, the eye’s outer lens. Boxer Wachler says one in 500 people suffer from the condition, and he urged Holcomb to undergo a revolutionary treatment. The noninvasive procedure calls for the application of a vitamin solution, which is then activated by a low-dosage exposure to ultraviolet light and fortifies the deteriorating collagen fibers.
“It makes them stronger and thicker,” Boxer Wachler said. “It’s like taking a 100-pound weakling and turning him into Arnold Schwarzenegger at cornea collagen level.”
The procedure is now called Holcomb C3-R. Boxer Wachler traveled to the 2010 Vancouver Games, where Holcomb competed with 20-20 vision but was still aided by antidepressant medication. His crew became the first U.S. team since 1948 to win the four-man bobsled.
“I was overcome with emotion. I was just sobbing,” Boxer Wachler said.
The doctor will be supporting his friend and patient in Sochi, too, where Holcomb is well positioned to improve on his Vancouver performance. He’s one of 13 returning gold medalists for Team USA and is among the most decorated Americans competing at these Winter Games.
Holcomb and his crewmates started the current World Cup season hot, sweeping races in North America. He hasn’t fared quite as well overseas, but he’s still tweaking his sleds and has seen his results improve. Altogether, he has won nine four-man and two-man World Cup races this season.
He has competed just once before on the Olympic track at the Sanki Sliding Center outside of Sochi. He finished no better than 10th there at a trial event last year, but many drivers reported a rough course that needed more work before the Winter Games. Holcomb said it’s a slower track than the 2010 Vancouver Games and some of the inclines could neutralize his driving experience. Holcomb earns his keep making quick turns at blistering speeds.
While he’ll be steering a pair of new sleds, he also brings a trimmer personal look to these Olympics. The medication in Vancouver contributed to a bigger frame, and Holcomb says he’s about 25 pounds lighter this time around.
But that’s not the only difference. He says he has let go of weight in recent years that no bathroom scale could ever detect. Like any good driver, he says he’s focused on the road in front of him.
“I’ve learned to see the signs in myself,” he said. “What happens as soon as I start to do a little bit of this habit or that habit — okay, need to stop doing that. Change my mentality before I even get down that road.”