Americans end 62-year drought with win in four-man bobsledding

Curtis Tomasevicz celebrates with from left, Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Steven Holcomb after winning the first U.S. gold in the four-man since 1948.
Curtis Tomasevicz celebrates with from left, Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Steven Holcomb after winning the first U.S. gold in the four-man since 1948. (Jeff Mcintosh/canadian Press)
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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

WHISTLER, B.C. -- The last bobsled to go down the track at Whistler Sliding Centre on Saturday carried four burly men and 62 years of pent-up emotion ready to be set loose. The vehicle had not even come to a halt when the guy in the back of the bobsled, Curtis Tomasevicz, tackle-embraced the guy in front of him; and then U.S. men's bobsled Coach Brian Shimer leaped virtually into the sled to join in the thunderstorm of hugs.

Cowbells rang, U.S. flags waved, and grown men shouted and cried. And they did a ridiculous dance they call the Holc-y-Pokey.

Rarely has a simple sled ride down a snowy hill carried so much meaning. With the first-place finish of U.S. bobsled pilot Steven Holcomb and his four-man sled, Holcomb won his first Olympic gold medal, and the United States ensured it will clinch the record for Winter Games medals with 37 after Sunday's gold medal game in men's hockey.

"That's a great feeling," Tomasevicz said. "There are not a lot of perks that come with competing last in the Olympics, and I guess that's one of them."

The victory also ended a 62-year gold medal drought for the U.S. men's bobsled team, which last won gold in 1948. No other national Olympic committee has endured such a long wait between golds.

"Now we have to start the clock over and do it again in Sochi" at the 2014 Winter Games, Holcomb said. "This is an amazing feeling. I've dreamed about it for years. It's kind of overwhelming."

Holcomb, 29, led every one of the four heats of the two-day competition, giving him a comfortable half-second lead on the last run. He finished with a combined time of 3 minutes 24.46 seconds; Germany driver Andre Lange, a four-time Olympic gold medal winner, grabbed the silver medal in 3:24.84 and Canada's Lyndon Rush got the bronze in 3:24.85. Fairfax's Mike Kohn, who won a bronze medal in 2002, finished 13th overall in 3:27.32, but even he and his four-man team joined in the jubilant celebration over Holcomb's gold.

"I've been here for 20 of these 62 years," said Kohn, a Chantilly High and George Mason University graduate who is now in the Virginia National Guard. "I know the struggle. I know what these guys went through."

Holcomb and his sledmates, Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Tomasevicz, had plenty more to face than history. They entered the Games as world champions, so the expectations were huge. And they had to meet those expectations on a track considered the fastest and most difficult in the world -- a Georgian luge athlete was killed in an accident on the track on the first day of the Games -- and one on which they had little training time.

The Canadians, meantime, trained in Whistler daily leading up to the Games.

"This track is hard," Holcomb said. "And we had a very short amount of time to learn it and figure it out. It came down to who could figure it out the quickest."

That distinction appeared to belong to the legendary Lange, who had won the two-man event earlier in the week (Holcomb was sixth) and hoped for a third consecutive four-man Olympic title. Lange actually made up time on the last run, knocking the Canadians from second place into third, but he couldn't catch Holcomb.

Lange's pushers expressed their gratitude for his years of service anyway, cheerfully donning white T-shirts that read "Thank you Andre" after the race. The shirts were imprinted with gold lettering, but it was Holcomb who claimed the long-sought title.

After finishing sixth in the four-man event at the 2006 Olympics, Holcomb had almost quit the sport in 2007 after he learned that he had a degenerative eye condition that could lead him to go blind. But he underwent novel surgery to correct the problem and was able to continue.

"Three years ago, he wasn't sure he would be here," Shimer said. "He was concerned he would even be able to compete."

Shimer called Holcomb the steadiest, coolest driver he has ever seen, noting that it only took Holcomb two Olympic Games to achieve an Olympic medal, which Shimer claimed only in his fifth and last Olympic Games in 2002. He shared his bronze medal then with Kohn, who was a push-athlete in his sled.

This was Kohn's first Games as a driver, and the path here was long and winding. He began the season ranked fourth among the best U.S. sleds, and had little hope of making the Olympic team. But in December, 2002 Olympic silver medalist Todd Hays suffered a career-ending head injury, giving Kohn a chance to make the Olympic team as the third U.S. sled.

With a furious push on the European circuit, Kohn won an Olympic spot in his last qualifying opportunity in mid-January, joining Holcomb and young American John Napier. Napier crashed in this competition and did not post a finishing time in the four-man competition.

In the two-man event earlier, Kohn had finished 12th and Napier 10th.

"I couldn't be happier considering what I had to go through," Kohn said. "At the end of the day, I wanted to get us down the track safe and I did that and got us an average result. I'll take it.

"I'm 99 percent sure I'll be leaving the sport . . . It's just a great end for me; I'm looking forward to the next chapter in my life."

So is Holcomb. Only now, as the reigning Olympic and world champion, he has no intention of going anywhere.

"I'm a lifer," he said "I'm living a dream. How could I give it up?"

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