KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Steve Holcomb spent weeks, months and years thinking about this day. And now he has just a few hours to scrounge, probe and hunt for a couple tenths of a second.
Midway through the four-man bobsled competition, the USA-1 sled Holcomb pilots is in fourth place. His hopes of making history by becoming the first American to defend his Olympic gold medal will come down to his ability to find those precious fractions of a second somewhere on the track Sunday at Sanki Sliding Center.
Through two of the event’s four heats, Holcomb and his three teammates trail the first-place Russian sled by 0.17 seconds. It sounds like the blink of an eye, but in bobsledding, it represents a sizable margin, and in the event’s final two runs Sunday, Holcomb must hope he can find areas to close the gap through expert driving — or that the three pilots ahead of him make mistakes.
“We’re only 0.17 out,” Holcomb said. “Everybody’s kind of looking at us like they kicked our dog or something.”
Dissecting the bobsled course
The Sanki track is an icy roller coaster that includes 17 curves in all, plus three inclines and plenty of nooks and crannies where time is easily lost or found. Holcomb will keep studying the track until his name is called for the third heat Sunday, trying to figure out how he can improve on a disappointing run in Saturday’s second heat. He’s not necessarily trying to identify the spots where he can pick up time; he wants to know where he’s losing it.
“You can lose it in curve two to three, lose it four to five, five to six, seven to nine,” he said. “Nine to 10 even. Ten to 11. I could go all the way down. Every little spot counts and you have to be perfect the whole way down.”
But will perfect be enough? Last week, Slate analyzed the results of all Olympic and world championship bobsled events since 2005 and found that 85 percent of the time, the sled leading at the midway point eventually wins. At the midpoint of this event four years ago, Holcomb held a 0.40-second advantage over the rest of the field. After two more heats, he won gold by 0.38 seconds over the second-place sled.
Still, the top four sleds at these Sochi Games are separated by less than two-tenths of a second. The USA-1 sled is only 0.01 seconds behind third-place Germany.
“I made more mistakes driving than I wanted to. But we can fix that for tomorrow,” Holcomb said. “We’ll go back, watch video, make sure I don’t make those mistakes tomorrow.”
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Holcomb showed little sign of the calf injury he suffered in the two-man event earlier in the week. He took it easy during training runs, allowing his teammates to handle most of the pushing. He said following Saturday’s heats, the calf is only about 90 percent but he wasn’t competing in pain.
After posting a time of 54.89 seconds on their first run, Holcomb’s crew entered the second heat in second place, facing a 0.07-second deficit. The sled posted a time of 55.47 in the second run, just the ninth-best time of the heat. After Russia-1 finished its second run in 55.37 seconds, the Americans finished the day in fourth place with a total time of 1:50.36. The Russian sled is piloted by Alexander Zubkov, who won gold here Monday in the two-man event.
With just the ninth-best time in the heat, the Americans were paying close attention to the other sleds Saturday night. There’s a code to the track that they’re trying to crack before Sunday’s third heat and every sled’s run provides small clues.
The second-place Latvians, for instance, stood in fifth place after the first run with a deficit of 0.28 and jumped up to second place, posting a heat of 55.13, and now trail Russia by just 0.04 seconds. That’s the kind of difference the Americans will try to make up over the course of two runs Sunday.
“Trust me, we’re gonna go back and watch their video and see what they were doing, where they picked up the time,” Holcomb said.
His crew, which includes Chris Fogt, Curt Tomasevicz and Steve Langton, knows that if any driver in the field can find the time, it’s their accomplished pilot. Said Fogt: “With Holcomb driving . . . anything’s possible.”