Mooresville, N.C. » Steven Holcomb sits low in the driver’s seat of his sleek new bobsled, his head poking up just enough for his eyes to peek out over the hood.
Three hulking teammates cram in behind him, heads down and abs crunched, in an effort to tuck as low and tight as possible while a steady blast of air rushes over them at 80 mph. On the other side of a massive wall, engineers record everything, using cameras and computers, hoping to discover the aerodynamically perfect way for Holcomb to drive the sled down an icy track at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
But outside, it is hot and muggy.
The simple aluminum-sided building that houses the enormous wind tunnel in which the athletes crouch — a giant garage, really — rests on a plain lot just off a little black ribbon of two-lane road cutting through the lush Carolina forest. The Olympics are still 169 days and 6,000 miles away.
But this is where Holcomb has come, to try to win another gold medal.
‘It can’t go fast enough’ » Three and a half years ago, everything was golden for Steven Holcomb.
The 33-year-old from Park City, who had overcome near blindness, a suicide attempt and a DUI arrest, had the fastest sled in the world — the famous "Night Train" — the first four-man Olympic gold medal won by an American in 62 years, and his pick of high-profile celebrations and public appearances after the Vancouver Olympics in Canada. The U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation was celebrating its finest hour.
It wasn’t long, though, before cracks started to show.
Although Holcomb continued to excel for a while — he became the first American to sweep the two-man and four-man races at the 2012 world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y. — other sleds from other countries began to catch up.
The federation ran low on money and couldn’t service all of its sleds properly.
And in a development that has dominated the bobsled world since Vancouver, the federation also began clashing with Geoff Bodine, the former stock-car driver who started the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, which had built and maintained the entire fleet of American sleds over a span of nearly 20 years. The sides eventually ended their long relationship in a dispute over intellectual property and control of the sleds, and settled a pending lawsuit just five months ago after a two-year battle.
"We knew this split was only going to hurt the athletes," Bodine said.
It did, from the looks of it.
By the end of last season, the fastest pilot in the world had inexplicably fallen off the leaderboard.
After winning the first three two-man races of the World Cup season, Holcomb couldn’t finish higher than eighth in the last three — though he and brakeman Curtis Tomasevicz did claim a bronze medal at the world championships in St. Moritz after spending most of the season testing different sleds.
In four-man, Holcomb finished second in the first two races of the season, then failed to finish higher than sixth in the last six, one of which he skipped to prepare for the world championships. In the season finale on the Olympic track in Sochi, Holcomb and the Night Train were a distant 10th.
"It was disappointing because you have a sled that’s unbeatable, and then all of a sudden, it can’t go fast enough," he said. "And you don’t know why. We still, to this day, don’t know."
Most people involved with the team figure it was a combination of factors, from less-than-ideal maintenance — the federation could not afford to send a full-time sled technician on the World Cup circuit — to other teams improving and the disruption caused by the rift between Bodine and the federation.
Bodine is clearly still a little bitter over the split, in fact, describing the federation as having "turned on us."
But later, he insists that "it’s all good" and that now, two years after they parted ways, the sides are ready to do whatever is necessary to help the athletes.Next Page >
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.