PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Carlo Valdes and his teammates had worked for four years to get to this point. They’d landed in South Korea hopeful about what these Olympics might hold, an excitement that was temporarily doused earlier this week when three officials with USA Bobsled walked into their Olympic Village suite with somber looks.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” Valdes said Wednesday. “Like, did someone fail a drug test or something?”
The news was, in some ways, even more dire. Justin Olsen, the man charged with piloting their sled in the PyeongChang Games and an essential piece of their Olympic dream, was headed into surgery. Olsen, 30, had mentioned he was feeling abdominal pain earlier in the day, but no one thought much of it. After all, he was a finely tuned athlete, and no one had reason to suspect something was seriously wrong.
But his teammates were told that Olsen was headed to a South Korean hospital with acute appendicitis.
“All of us were kind of shocked,” Valdes said. “We didn’t expect anything like that.”
Olsen, a three-time Olympian who was a pusher for the United States’ four-man team that won gold at the Vancouver Games in 2010, was chosen as a pilot for the PyeongChang Games, hoping to steer sleds in both the two-man and four-man races.
For his teammates, the news was hard to process. Assured Olsen was going to be okay, they started thinking about the upcoming Olympic competition, just days away.
“Our hearts kind of sank,” teammate Chris Fogt said. “All of us have trained hard for these last four years to get here. For a brief moment, you kind of think about the worst-case scenario. You see your dreams and your hard work go out the window.”
On Monday, Olsen underwent a laparoscopic appendectomy in Gangneung, and his teammates waited with bated breath.
“There was definitely a brief moment of panic,” said Nathan Weber, a teammate in Olsen’s four-man sled, “not knowing what was going on or what was going to happen.”
Initially, the pain was so bad that Olsen was texting his teammates expressing doubts that he would be able to compete. Doctors caught it early enough that it required only a minimally-invasive procedure. They didn’t have to cut through the muscle tissue in his obliques to remove his appendix, and the morning after the surgery, Olsen was back on his feet and texting teammates with encouraging news.
“That’s just the kind of guy he is,” Valdes said, “pretty optimistic about the whole process.”
His sledmates knew that as long as Olsen could stand, there was a good chance they’d still be competing. Olsen is a sergeant in the National Guard, and his fellow bobsledders have seen him overcome a lot to get to this point.
“It’s just the way he thinks,” Valdes said, “his mentality. It’s always been that way.”
Said Weber: “He’s a great driver and phenomenal athlete, so if anyone can bounce back from this, it’s him.”
While Olsen is missing important practice runs this week, his teammates take comfort in his familiarity with the track. Olsen visited PyeongChang last October and squeezed in 15-20 runs that they hope will compensate for missed practice time this week. Two-man training begins Feb 15. Training for the four-man race is scheduled to begin Feb. 21.
“It’s probably going to bother him, but at the same time it’s going to clear his mind and allow him to focus on what he needs to do and get back as fast as he can,” Valdes said.
These PyeongChang Games mark Olsen’s third Olympics but his first as a pilot. He was a member of Steven Holcomb’s four-man team that won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games and also part of Nick Cunningham’s crew four years ago at the Sochi Olympics.
Texas-raised and Army-bred, Olsen has shown a special brand of toughness and resilience since his first day in a sled nearly a dozen years ago.
“He probably crashed more times in his first month of sliding than I’ve crashed in the last 10 years,” Fogt joked. “And I’ve still never seen Justin miss a training day.”
Olsen was released from the hospital in Gangneung on Tuesday and could return to the Olympic Village with his teammates by the end of the week. As he recovers, Olsen might not be running with his teammates initially but could still sit in the front of the sled and steer them down the icy track.
“I feel just as confident as I did before this happened,” Weber said. “There isn’t anyone I’d rather be pushing for in the Olympics, and I know he’ll be ready when we rip it off the top of the hill on race day.”
In the meantime, they’re missing some vital training runs but trying to take comfort in the fact that Olsen is healthy and that he has more experience than most on the PyeongChang track. They don’t need any extra motivation, but they also realize a bit more effort might be required to have any chance at the podium.
“If it was up to him,” Valdes said, “he would hop in the sled right now.”
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