KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Steve Holcomb tried to hide the limp. When someone asked why he was walking funny, he blamed his shoes. He kept the truth a secret: He strained a calf muscle during an early heat, and U.S. bobsled officials were trying to decide whether he should even continue in the two-man bobsled competition.
Less than 24 hours later, the pain was easy to ignore, supplanted by the unfettered elation from a historic trip down the Sanki Sliding Center track, where Holcomb pushed through his injury to lock up the bronze medal. The third-place finish marked the first time the United States has won an Olympic medal in the two-man event since 1952.
“When you’re sitting in third place, you can deal with a lot more pain than you think you can,” Holcomb said.
Just hours before Monday’s competition was scheduled to begin, U.S. team officials weren’t certain Holcomb would be healthy enough to compete. On Sunday night, he tweaked the muscle at the start of the second heat on just his second step. “Just pushing hard,” he said. “That’s what we’re here to do.” He could feel the pain in his left calf instantly and had to decide whether to stop running or hop in the sled and continue.
“I’m glad he opted for the second option,” said Brian Shimer, coach of the U.S. men’s team.
Holcomb, 33, managed to keep the U.S. team in third place at the competition’s halfway point but had no idea how his calf would feel when it was time for the third heat to begin one night later. He went straight from the track Sunday to meet with medical personnel for about 45 minutes, and suddenly the entire Olympics for U.S. bobsled were thrown up in the air. Could he get back in the sled? Should he forsake the two-man event and make sure he was 100 percent for the four-man, which he’d won at the Vancouver Games in 2010?
“It was a pretty dismal night, wondering if he was gonna be able to go today or maybe make it worse and also have to pull out of the four-man,” Shimer said.
“This is four years to get to this point,” he said. “I’m not going to let a little calf boo-boo stop me.”
The driver would push through the injury, but there was still the small matter of navigating the track. The Americans haven’t found near the same level of success on European tracks this season as North American ones. Here, especially, Holcomb felt at a disadvantage. He had only piloted sleds down the Sanki track three dozen times or so, a fraction of the runs by the host nation.
Holcomb relied on teammate Steven Langton to push a little harder in the first heat — “I knew I would have to give every ounce of anything I had just to compensate for his little injury,” Langton said — and the USA-1 sled finished the heat in 56.41 seconds. The Americans’ total time was well behind the top Russian sled and was only 0.09 better than the fourth-place Canadian team with one more trip down the track to go.
With a medal on the line in the fourth heat, Holcomb knew he couldn’t afford to hold anything back. “Sitting in third place, you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got,” he said.
Canada-3 completed its final heat in 56.94, putting the sled well behind the leaders. By the time USA-1 hit the track — the third to last in the competition — it needed to top the fast Russia-2 sled.
There was certainly pain but with so much at stake, Holcomb said it was easy to ignore. With both Langton and Holcomb pushing full speed, they managed to nip the Russia-2 sled by just 0.03 of a second. USA-1 finished the final heat in 56.68 seconds for a total time of 3:46.27.
Russia-1 cruised to gold with Alexander Zubkov and Alexey Voevoda in the sled, posting a total time of 3:45.39. Zubkov and Voevoda both won a silver at the 2006 Games, bronze in Vancouver and now each has a gold to complete his collection. Switzerland took silver.
Holcomb pumped his fists when he saw the final times. He knew instantly: another long U.S. drought was finally over. The bronze is Holcomb’s second Olympic medal. Four years ago in Vancouver, he led the Americans to a big win in the four-man, which also snapped a 62-year winless stretch.
He came to Sochi with hopes of medaling in both the two-man and four-man events. The four-man competition doesn't begin until Saturday, and Holcomb said he hopes his calf will be 100 percent by then.
At the conclusion of Monday’s heats, Holcomb was again on an Olympic podium. An event volunteer handed him a victory bouquet, and the top American driver buried his nose inside and took a deep breath.
“That’s kind of my thing. I always stop and smell the flowers,” he said. “You got to cherish the moment.”