Krasnaya Polyana, Russia • Sixty-two years it had been since an American won an Olympic medal in the two-man bobsled, but those last 24 hours were the longest for Steven Holcomb.
The Park City native did not know whether he would be able to compete in his final two runs at the Sochi Olympics on Monday after injuring his left calf the previous night pushing the 400-pound sled to start his second run with teammate Steve Langton. Medical personnel worked on him for hours, deep into the night, and coach Brian Shimer worried that the most decorated driver in U.S. history might have to abandon the race in order to heal in time for the four-man race next weekend.
“I think that was off the table before it even made it on the table,” Holcomb insisted.
Nevertheless, Shimer considered it a minor miracle that Holcomb was able to take the track on Monday, never mind hold on for the historic bronze medal by just 0.03 seconds at the Sanki Sliding Center. It was the first time since the 1952 Oslo Games that an American had won a medal in the event, equaling the drought Holcomb ended when he won four-man gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“If anybody else has a 62-year drought they need to break,” he said, “let me know and I’ll try to help you.”
The new BMW-designed sled that Holcomb drives had barely come to a stop on the track before Holcomb was mobbed by his teammates and coaches, knowing that an Olympic medal in two-man was the only thing missing from Holcomb’s trophy case. He’d won a four-man medal. He’d won world titles and World Cup championships in both disciplines.
Two-man at the Olympics?
That had been his white whale.
“There were a lot of naysayers over the past four years,” fellow driver Nick Cunningham said, “saying that we’re a four-man country. Two-man, we’re just not competitive. So to come out here and prove everyone wrong, it’s been awesome.”
Russia’s Alexander Zubkov slayed his own dragons, ending an 0-for-25 streak in two-man races by clocking a four-run combined time of 3 minutes, 45.39 seconds and delivering his country’s first bobsled gold in front of a roaring home crowd.
The 39-year-old Zubkov and brakeman Alexei Voevoda, a vegetarian and three-time world arm-wrestling champion, led throughout the four-heat competition and twice broke the track record to help Zubkov complete his set of Olympic medals. He also won two-man bronze in Vancouver and four-man silver at the 2006 Turin Games.
Beat Hefti of Switzerland was second, 0.66 seconds behind, after Holcomb just barely hung on to third, another 0.22 seconds back.
“He’s a gamer,” Langton said. “I knew when his name was called, he’d be ready to go.”
Still, with Holcomb hurting, the Americans planned for Langton to take most of the load pushing to start their third run — first of the night, after the two the previous night — with a cushion of just 0.08 seconds on the fourth-place sled. They didn’t want Holcomb to aggravate the injury, which occurred on the second step of his push the night before.
“What sucks is, you get in the sled and you still have a minute to go,” he said. “You can’t just, stop, get out, and like, ‘Ow.’ You’re trying to focus on the drive, and all you can think about is your leg hurts. And it’s a really tight fit, so you’re cramping up inside the sled, so you’re trying to move and get your foot at the right angle to keep it stretched. And if you’re moving in the sled, the sled’s moving.”
If Holcomb hadn’t been able to compete after that, Shimer — he’s the former pilot who won bronze in the four-man race at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics — joked that “I would have put his helmet on, put a few pillows” under his shirt “and be gone.”
But the leg held up better than Holcomb expected, allowing him to push harder on his final run. “It was four years to get to this point,” he said. “I’m not going to let a little calf boo-boo stop me.”
Holcomb needed everything he had.
He’s still getting used to the new track here and didn’t drive perfectly — Holcomb figures he’s taken maybe four dozen trips down, while Zubkov has had more than 300 — losing precious time when he bumped into the wall. But when the clock stopped, he still had those three-hundredths on Russia’s Alexander Kasjanov, and knew he’d be going home with something.
“I’m going home with an Olympic medal,” he said, “so that’s pretty bad-ass.”
Now, Holcomb as a chance to become the only American driver except Stanley Benham to win both two-man and four-man medals at the same Olympics; Benham did it in ‘52. Alpine’s Chris Fogt will join that effort, after pushing driver Cory Butner to 12th-place in the two-man race.
What’s more, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation could wind up with medals in every discipline here — two-man, four-man and two-man bobsled, and men’s and women’s skeleton — after skeleton sliders Noelle Pikus-Pace of Eagle Mountain and Matt Antoine claimed silver and bronze, respectively.
“Who better to win a medal than Holcomb, you know?” Cunningham said. “A guy who’s elevated the entire program. … He’s elevated us all.”