On history’s brink: Driver Steve Holcomb has US sled in front halfway through 4-man bob

By Tom Withers, AP
Friday, February 26, 2010

US is halfway to huge victory in Olympic boblsed

WHISTLER, British Columbia — “The Night Train” is halfway to a golden destination.

Driver Steve Holcomb slid USA-1, the baddest-looking bobsled designed with NASCAR technology and powered by American muscle, into the lead Friday after the first two runs of the Olympic four-man competition. This is a race the United States hasn’t won since 1948.

Holcomb and his crew of Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz are two trips from ending 62 years of icy failures.

Two from history.

Two from gold.

Two from glory.

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 his sledmates 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 win 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-3 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 down. The two-time defending champion in four-man, Lange lost control in 13, but managed to stay upright and in doing so 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 at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1948.

The U.S. came close in 2002, winning silver and bronze at Salt Lake City. Lange won gold and repeated in 2006.

His run may be over.

Napier was in 17th 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, who was competing two days after he was detained by Canadian police following an argument with his fiancee.

Moriarty said the slip had never happened to him 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 looking like the stars adorning the sleeves of the U.S. 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 down 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.

It didn’t last long.

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 USA-1’s designated driver, the affable Holcomb, as approachable an athlete as any, receives most of the attention. But “The Night Train” is turbo-powered by four horses of men, all successful athletes in other sports who somehow found their way to bobsled.

Tucking in directly behind Holcomb is Olsen of Salt Lake City, 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. Like the number on their sled, they are USA-One.

Four men, one goal: gold.

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

Earlier this week, Holcomb, this band’s leader stood near the finish area and, from more than 100 feet away, watched as Lange’s practice time was posted on the scoreboard.

“Perfect,” he said.

Holcomb was referring to Lange’s trip. He could have also meant his sight.

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

Holcomb 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.

And a gold medal dangling in front of him.

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