DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — The American bobsledders think about Steve Holcomb all the time. Any one of them will tell you that. Holcomb was the face of their sport, the one who lifted American bobsledding from on-the-cusp to gold medal-ready. And he took the time to teach others how to keep it there.
Holcomb led the United States to its first four-man bobsled gold medal in half a century with his win in Vancouver. He led the United States to a bronze in Sochi. As the four-man bobsled event ran the first of two heats at the Olympic Sliding Centre on Saturday, he should have been there, too. If he had been, things would have been different. This moment would have been his swan song, not a tribute. A medal would be within reach, not a stretch.
Holcomb passed away at 37 last May. He was found dead at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid with a blood alcohol level of 0.19 and the sleeping aid Lunesta in his system. Everyone close to him talks about his death as a tragic accident. Everyone close to him, including his U.S. bobsled teammates, is still adjusting to life without him.
A great majority of those adjustments are emotional, the changes to expectations and priorities made to work through the grief and the confusion. But some of them, the more awkward adjustments, amount to logistics. As the men’s bobsledders slogged through a disappointing showing in the two-man event, then battled inconsistency in the first two runs of the four-man Saturday, the logistical realities of Holcomb’s death became clear.
Holcomb finished the 2016-2017 season with the third-ranked four-man sled in the world. Even at 37, he would have a led a sled into medal contention at these Olympics. Without him, Codie Bascue inherited all the responsibilities that come with being the pilot of the top American sled. Bascue’s crew entered these Olympics ranked eighth. Justin Olsen’s sled (20th) and Nick Cunningham’s sled (22nd) entered as the United States’ second and third, respectively.
Bascue engineered the best finish through the first few heats. His sled will begin the final day in ninth place, though he had hoped his team would be closer to the top five. Olsen’s sled is 21st, which left him and his team disappointed, though they had never finished higher than ninth before. If they are outside the top 20 after their third run Sunday, they will not qualify for a fourth.
Cunningham’s sled stands 20th, though he joked the clock was broken. With warm conditions and an Olympics-worth of runs wearing away the track, many teams found themselves confused by their results. After what he thought was a solid second run, Cunningham looked up and saw a worse time than he expected. He wanted to toss his helmet in disgust.
Holcomb “is the reason I didn’t smash it on the ground,” he said. “He was very quick to forget a bad race because tomorrow is a new day. If I dwell on today, there’s nothing I could do. He’d kind of teach me to just put it behind you.”
No one on this team is prone to excuses. Bascue’s sled includes two former college track and field athletes and a former NFL player. Olsen underwent an emergency appendectomy two weeks before competition started here and was on a treadmill three days later. His sled includes Nathan Weber, a Green Beret who trained for this event in the Sahara and while under mortar fire in Afghanistan, as well as Army Capt. Christopher Fogt.
All of them are elite physical specimens. None of the pilots, however they try, can approach Holcomb’s racing acumen or his ability to navigate the pressures and expectations that come with the pilot’s role.
“Being a driver is not easy,” Olsen said. “. . . You just wear the pressure of everybody else. When you win, everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, you did great,’ but the other guys did pretty good, too. When you lose, they’re like, ‘Man, you suck.’ ”
Holcomb wore those pressures with ease, and they will miss him, not just for his skill but also for his insights. Holcomb could read tracks and make adjustments, things Olsen said are not as easy as they look.
When Olsen tried to take a slightly different route in his second run Saturday, one he hadn’t practiced, he couldn’t execute it, and the sled bounced around, taking seconds with it. Only the top-level drivers can make those switches on instinct, without repetition. Holcomb was one of those drivers. Olsen and his teammates are doing what they can. But some talents can’t be duplicated.
When Holcomb was in PyeongChang for the Olympic test event last year, he told reporters then he “had a good feeling” about what would happen in these Olympics. Now his death looms over these Games, which have become an awkward and reluctant rebuilding experience without him. After two runs Saturday, these Americans could become the first American bobsled team without a sled in the top 10 since Lillehammer in 1994.
“This team has been through so much this season. It’s been the hardest, most difficult season I’ve ever been a part of,” Bascue said. “So to come out tomorrow and do something really special, to kind of finish where we want, would be amazing.”
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