Pyeongchang, South Korea • Like most mothers, Jean Schaefer didn’t get to talk to her son as much as she would have liked. He was 37 and he traveled for work, and they stayed in touch mostly through text messages. So when winter started, she let a small part of herself believe she might see him at their usual meeting spots: Lake Placid, Whistler, the Olympics.
This week, at a bobsled track tucked into the mountains of South Korea, reality has been the coldest thing a mother has had to endure.
“It’s difficult watching the sledders come down and know that Steve isn’t there,” Schaefer said. “It slaps you in the face.”
It has been nine months since Steve Holcomb, the three-time Olympic medalist and the face of U.S. bobsledding, died in his room at the team’s training facility in Lake Placid, N.Y. But there are still so many reminders around Pyeongchang of his life and legacy.
American driver Elana Meyers Taylor was thinking of Holcomb immediately after she won a silver medal this week.
“After the death of Steve Holcomb, I didn’t want to get in a sled,” she said. “So going a whole summer and not being sure if I even wanted to come back to the sport, you know, to be able to do this and have his legacy live on, it’s the least we could do, and I’m honored.”
And as the U.S. teams race here Saturday, they wore bracelets with Holcomb’s “Night Train” nickname on them.
“I know that he wants us to do really well here,” bobsledder Carlo Valdes said ahead of this weekend’s competition. “He’s watching from above.”
Some of the men inside those sleds wouldn’t even be here if not for Holcomb. After winning bronze four years ago in Sochi, Russia, Utahn Chris Fogt was ecstatic. Holcomb, with his gold medal from the 2010 Vancouver Games, apologized to his teammate at the Closing Ceremony. “He told me, ‘I promise you, if you come back in 2018, we’ll win a gold medal,’” Fogt recalled. Holcomb’s promise and skill as a driver, perhaps the best America has ever seen, lured Fogt brakeman Steve Langton out of retirement to race again in Pyeongchang.
“It was his dream team,” Schaefer said.
With his team set, Holcomb bought an expensive set of runners for his sled and worked to perfectly dial in the steering system of his new BMW-made ride.
Then everything changed.
Holcomb was a quiet man, who kept to himself. Oftentimes, his teammates said, he would stock up on food and then stay in his room at the Lake Placid facility for days at a time.
In April, Nick Cunningham, another U.S. bobsled driver, became concerned and called to have someone check on Holcomb. “You see red flags and you want to at least make sure you tell some people,” Cunningham told reporters last fall. When officials went to Holcomb’s room then, everything was fine.
Two weeks later, however, Holcomb’s best friend, skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender became concerned. Holcomb had gone too long without messaging her, so she broke into his room and found his body on May 6. A toxicology report found a fatal mix of alcohol and the sleeping aid Lunesta in Holcomb’s system, according to U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton officials. Holcomb had battled depression in the past, but his teammates have said they believe his death was simply a tragic accident.
The news rocked Holcomb’s family and friends and teammates. Langton and Fogt debated whether to continue with their Olympic quest. Without their driver, a medal seems like an unlikely dream.
“We had won nine of the 16 races prior to the Olympic Games. We were that much feared here,” Fogt said this week. “Our season’s been a lot more up and down this year with his loss. Our drivers … have done a great job trying to fill that gap, but you just can’t replace somebody that good.
“When Tom Brady goes down, you can’t replace Tom Brady.”
In the end, they decided there were more important things than medals. They would push on.
“We’re all suffering together, and the best way to honor that legacy is to carry it on, to always be that threat on the hill, always put in that work and honor him by what we’re doing behind the scenes,” Cunningham said. “Because that’s how he was good, was the work that he put into it away from the track.”
Through grief, Schaefer is pushing on, too.
“I am strong,” she said this week, sitting in the lobby of her hotel near the Alpensia Sliding Centre, “but I have my breakdowns.”
Holcomb’s mother has spent the past months trying to sort through the details of her son’s life. She spends four or five hours a day working to access email, bank accounts and other parts of her son that have been locked inside his computer, protected by passwords she has had to fight to obtain. She calls it her “sleuthing time.” At the desk where she works, there is a calendar from Germany. Each month highlights a different athlete’s eyes. Only the eyes. Steve is November.
“His eyes are very distinctive to me,” she says and starts to cry. “So I have his eyes right there watching me, and I feel like together we’re doing this. It’s our thing that we do together. That’s what helps me.”
Schaefer called her trip to South Korea “a bittersweet journey.” After her son had expressed concerns about her safety in Russia, she decided not to go to Sochi. She didn’t get to watch his bronze-medal races live. She wasn’t able to be there in the spring of 2017, just a few days before his death, when Holcomb raced on the track here in Pyeongchang. So there was never any doubt she would make the trip to be watch these Olympics — but she could never imagine it would be under these circumstances.
“I have a huge feeling inside me accepting the fact that Steven isn’t here anymore,” she said. “… I am here out of respect and to support those athletes that went the extra mile for Steven. I told them I’m going to be there for you. I’m going to bring Steven’s spirit and energy to you.”
HOLCOMB’S LEGACY FOUNDATION
Steve Holcomb suffered from Keratoconus, a disease that impacts the outer lens of the eye, causing distortion, multiple images, glares and halos. Holcomb was going blind before he had the procedure that has since been renamed in his honor, and Schaefer and Holcomb’s eye surgeon, Brian Boxer Wachler, have been in South Korea trying to raise awareness and funds for the “Giving Vision — Steven Holcomb Legacy Foundation.” “We were there for Steven in Vancouver. I was there in Sochi. We’re here for him in Pyeongchang,” Boxer Wachler said this week. “We’ll always be here for him.” Before his death, Holcomb was an advocate for Keratoconus education and the procedure, called Holcomb C-3R, for which he credited saving his eyesight and his bobsled career. “Steven’s legacy is important to me. He was more than a bobsledder,” Schaefer said. “He had a very big heart and a passion for helping people.” The foundation’s website is www.givingvision.org.