Krasnaya Polyana, Russia
Steven Holcomb’s experience as a high school running back undoubtedly helped. So did his training as an elite-level ski racer in Park City.
And when the bronze medal-winning moment arrived Monday night, Holcomb played through the pain.
Like a bobsledder.
A strained calf muscle simply was not going to stop Holcomb from making the last two runs of the Olympic two-man bobsled competition.
Not now, with the USA-1 sled in third place. Not now, after four years of training. Not now, after the Americans had gone 62 years since medaling in this event.
So credit this display of toughness to the football player, the skier and the bobsledder in him.
“I’m not kidding when I say this: Your pain tolerance goes way up,” Holcomb said, after driving to a bronze medal with Steven Langton. “It’s a very violent sport … After six months of bobsledding, your pain tolerance goes up and you kind of learn how hard you can push yourself.”
And that’s how he made more history. Four years ago, Holcomb delivered the USA’s first four-man bobsled goal medal since 1948. This time, he brought home the first two-man medal of any color since 1952.
When he crossed the finish line and saw his coaches and U.S. teammates celebrating, Holcomb knew he had clinched a medal. He pumped his fist, showing more emotion than he did after the gold medal, and later described the achievement as “overwhelming.”
As a graduate of The Winter Sports School of Park City, Holcomb can do the math. “If anybody else has a 62-year drought they need to break, let me know,” he said with his usual, wry smile. “I’ll try to help.”
It’s all part of a continuing, amazing story, going back 16 years to when Holcomb, then 18 and a frustrated ski racer, was discovered by the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation. And it may get even better this weekend when he defends his Olympic title in the four-man sled.
On a 100-degree day at Skyline High School in July 1998, Holcomb responded to a flier about a bobsled casting call. Some delusional athletes also paid the $20 fee and tried out that day, including a gray-haired marathon runner and an overweight guy who ran 100 meters in about 20 seconds.
Holcomb showed the athletic ability that enabled him to run for touchdowns of 74 and 64 yards while playing for Park City High School. He performed well enough to earn free housing at a camp later that summer in Lake Placid, N.Y., sending him toward an Olympic career.
So skip ahead to Sunday night — glossing over the degenerative vision, the depression and the gold medal that all play into his story of 2010 — and Holcomb is hurting. He injured himself on the second step of the push that launched the team’s second run in the Olympics. He managed to climb into the sled and focus sufficiently to finish the course, then immediately sought medical help.
Holcomb was determined to compete Monday, and Langton was ready to do more than his usual share. Maybe that explains how their start was less of a problem than the finish. The USA-1’s lead over the fourth-place Russia-2 kept dwindling at intervals, but Holcomb came through.
“Nobody wants to bleed time, but he had enough,” said USA-3 driver Nick Cunningham. “He was in there fighting to the very end, and he did what he had to do.”
That’s Holcomb’s game. Somehow, the ex-skier keeps delivering on these mountain tracks, doing what U.S. bobsledders haven’t done in a long, long time.
Holcomb’s drive, and his driving ability, surfaced again Monday. I know this: I’ll be getting in touch with him when I turn 62, for help with my own unfinished business.