History calling: Steve Holcomb has US sled in front halfway through 4-man Olympic bob

By Tom Withers, AP
Friday, February 26, 2010

US is halfway to huge victory in Olympic bobsled

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The cry came from track level, 50 feet below the platform where the driver of the world’s baddest bobsled was standing.

Steve Holcomb looked down and saw his 4-year-old niece calling his name and gave her a thumbs up.

Dressed in a blue knee-length overcoat speckled with stars, Holcomb looked like Captain America. Two more runs like he delivered Friday, and he’ll be America’s bobsled superhero.

Driving “The Night Train,” the rocket-on-ice sled designed with NASCAR technology and powered by American muscle, Holcomb has the lead after the first two runs of the Olympic four-man competition, a race the United States hasn’t won since 1948.

“It’s a two-day race, we’re at halftime right now and we’ve got a pretty good lead,” Holcomb said. “If we put two solid runs tomorrow, we’ll be in the mix — I mean, not in the mix, we’ll be kicking butt.”

Setting track records on both runs, Holcomb completed his two descents down the frighteningly fast Whistler Sliding Center course in 1 minute, 41.75 seconds — 0.40 seconds ahead of Canada’s Lyndon Rush and 0.44 better than Germany’s Andre Lange, the most decorated driver in Olympic history.

Lange won his fourth Olympic title by winning the two-man event earlier at the Vancouver Games and is bobsled’s gold standard. Holcomb has a chance to lessen his value in the last two heats Saturday.

The pudgy 29-year-old and sledmates Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz have done this medal-drought busting thing before. Last year, Holcomb sent a seismic shiver through the sliding world when he became the first U.S. driver to capture a world championship in 50 years, winning it on Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, N.Y. — home ice.

Next could be a road win of epic proportions.

Six bobsleds, including USA-2 driven by John Napier, crashed during the two runs. Each of the sleds overturned in the dastardly 13th curve, nicknamed “50-50″ last year by Holcomb after he wrecked in the harrowing bend. Russia-2, driven by two-time Olympic medalist Alexsandr Zubkov, along with Austria-1 and Slovakia-1 all dropped out before their second heats.

Lange was fortunate to get through his second trip. Ae two-time defending champion in four-man, Lange lost control in 13, teetered dangerously for a nanosecond on one runner but managed to stay upright. In doing so, he stayed in the medal hunt.

Holcomb, though, may have put the gold out of his reach.

“What Holcomb did here today was super genius,” said Germany’s Kevin Kuske, Lange’s teammate for all four of his Olympic victories. “If he does that two more runs, he will be a very worthy Olympic champion.”

No American sled has finished first since Francis Tyler drove teammates Patrick Martin, Edward Rimkus and Williams D’Amico to a gold down a snowy track at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1948. The U.S. came close in 2002, winning silver and bronze at Salt Lake City. Lange won gold then and repeated in 2006.

Holcomb and his teammates don’t discuss their run at history.

“It just adds pressure that we don’t need,” Holcomb said. “Right now, everybody’s saying this is the best team we’ve had in a long time and this is the chance to break a medal (drought). If it doesn’t happen, who knows when it’ll happen. So if I don’t medal this week, then it’ll be 66 years.

“Andre’s under the pressure. He’s the reigning champion. He’s the one with the pressure on him. But he’s a fighter. He’s not going to give up. It’s an interesting situation.”

Napier was in 17th place and USA-3, piloted by Mike Kohn, was in 12th after pushman Jamie Moriarty slipped trying to load into the sled on the second run. Moriarty had to be pulled into the sled by teammate Bill Schuffenhauer, competing two days after he was detained by Canadian police following an argument with his fiancee.

Moriarty said he had never slipped before.

“And, of course, it had to happen at the Olympics,” he said.

Schuffenhauer was distraught after the first run and cried as he was led by the hand through the media mixed zone near the finish. He did not talk to reporters after the second heat.

With a few U.S. fans at the bottom of the track blowing wooden train whistles, “Night Train” with its coat of flat-black primer, accelerated off the starting line as snowflakes as big as the stars on the team’s red-white-and-blue racing suits, blanketed Blackcomb Mountain.

Holcomb and Co.’s start time of 4.75 was slower than Germany-1’s 4.73, and the U.S. team also trailed at the first interval. But from there on, it was All-American as Holcomb completed his first heat over the ice in 50.89 seconds, setting a record for this 16-curve course.

Holcomb lowered his mark with a blistering second run of 50.86, serving notice that he, and not Lange, is the man to beat this time.

“As nervous as I am, Holcomb doesn’t need to be,” said American coach Brian Shimer. “I’m carrying all that with me. I can’t stand this. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know what to do.”

As USA-1’s designated driver, the affable Holcomb receives most of the attention. But “The Night Train” is turbo-powered by men who were successful athletes in other sports and somehow found their way to bobsled.

Tucking in directly behind Holcomb is Olsen, a former star high school tight end and quarterback from San Antonio, hooked by the sport’s adrenaline rush. Next is Mesler, a kid from Buffalo, N.Y., who grew up playing hockey and soccer and ran track for the Florida Gators. And then there’s Tomasevicz, the brakeman from Shelby, Neb. (pop. 900), who walked on and played football for the Cornhuskers.

Their personalities don’t clash. They mesh.

“I’ve had more fun in the last four years,” Mesler said.

A few years ago, Holcomb’s vision had deteriorated to 20/500 from a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus, which makes the corneas bulge. He was legally blind and Holcomb’s days in the front of a bobsled seemed to be numbered.

He decided to undergo a radical procedure during which a contact lens was embedded behind the iris in both eyes. He can now see 20/20.

Everyone knows what he’s set his sight on.

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