Golden goal: American Steve Holcomb has chance to drive to Olympic bobsled history

By Tom Withers, AP
Saturday, February 27, 2010

US team halfway to bobsled history

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Train whistles tooted at the base of the mountain as Steve Holcomb prepared his bobsled for its Olympic debut.

Ripping down the ice, through technical turns at the top and cleanly past a precarious curve where expensive sleds get turned to scrap, the flat-black primed USA-1 — “The Night Train” as it is famously known — made two record runs down a track built for speed.

Two more good ones and 62 years of American bobsled failure will be over.

All aboard for history.

Pushed from the top of Blackcomb Mountain by Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz, 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 winningest driver in the Olympics.

Holcomb is poised to become the first American pilot to win a gold in four-man since 1948, when Francis Tyler won in St. Moritz.

“We know we have a job to do and it’s going to be difficult,” Holcomb said. “It’s not going to be easy to get through this track two more times cleanly and without too many mistakes.”

He was nearly flawless on Friday.

On a day when six bobsleds — one from the U.S. — crashed in turn 13, the notorious section he nicknamed after a spill there last year, the 29-year-old Holcomb treated Lange, bobsled’s most decorated Olympic pilot, and the rest of sliding world to a driving lesson.

“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.”

Turn 13 on this speedy track, which has been scrutinized since the death of a Georgian luger, claimed several sleds, including USA-2 driven by John Napier and one driven by Russia’s Alexsandr Zubkov, who withdrew before his second slide.

Lange barely got through the challenging section on his second trip. The 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.

“Andre’s under the pressure,” Holcomb said. “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.”

Holcomb and his tight team have done this medal-drought busting thing before. Last year, Holcomb and his three-man crew 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 home ice at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Next could be a road win of epic proportions.

No American sled has finished first since Tyler drove teammates Patrick Martin, Edward Rimkus and William 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.”

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.

Holcomb completed his first run over the ice in 50.89 seconds, setting a record for this 16-curve course. He 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.”

Holcomb didn’t seem too worried about being halfway to Olympic history. He was leading at the halfway point in the world championships last year, went out the next day and finished the job. That’s his plan again.

“We have to stay focused,” he said.

He intended to spend Friday night relaxing. Maybe have a healthy meal, watch his teammates play Rock Band and get some sleep before the race of his life.

Holcomb’s sled will go down first on Saturday, four close friends on a thrill ride toward history.

“We could be seeing something special,” Napier said.

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