Gold-medal winning bobsled driver Holcomb talks about his battles with depression, blindness

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1 2012 8:02 p.m. MST

Once he was diagnosed, the task became finding a combination of medication and therapy that would help him. He said one doctor referred to finding the right medication for each person suffering from depression as more an "art form than a science."

As he struggled to deal with depression, the devastating panic he felt about losing his eyesight became more and more painful.

"I was holding onto the secret about my eyes," he said. "I was traveling around, doing events, basically just standing up in front of everybody, lying to their faces that I was so excited to be training for the Olympics in three years."

It was during that time that he decided the debilitating sadness and impending loss of his sight and his career were unbearable.

"I had wrapped my entire existence up in the quest to be an Olympic champion, and now, with that opportunity right in front of me, I realized I couldn't reach it because of a crippling, damning disease," he wrote in Chapter 9 of his newly released autobiography "But Now I See: My journey from blindness to Olympic Glory."

So he drank enough whiskey in a Colorado Springs hotel room that he dared do what he'd contemplated on and off for years. He swallowed 73 sleeping pills hoping it would end the pain and sadness he just couldn't seem to escape.

He failed.

For the first time, failure made him feel blessed.

"I got lucky, and I shouldn't be here right now," said Holcomb. "I thought, 'Maybe I'm not supposed to die yet. Maybe there is something bigger for me to do.' After that, I took advantage of everything that comes my way."

His epiphany didn't cure him, but it did prepare him for a second miracle.

It was at a team camp in Canada that he finally told U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer that he was losing his eyesight. Instead of spending time with the athletes who were trying to help him in his professional pursuits, Holcomb was holed up in his hotel room.

Shimer confronted him, and Holcomb, who'd just become the first American to win the men's two-man bobsled World Cup title, told him the truth.

"He didn't quite understand what I meant by 'I'm blind,' " Holcomb said with a slight laugh. "Even to this day people will say, 'Oh, yeah, I have really bad vision.' "

Holcomb had been navigating the world's icy tracks with 20-500 vision.

"I can't see," Holcomb told his coach. "I have to quit."

Shimer, a former bobsled athlete who won bronze in the 2002 Winter Olympics, told the rising star not to lose hope, they'd figure something out. Holcomb, however, thought his fate was sealed as he'd already visited a dozen ophthalmologists. All of them came to the same conclusion — there was no hope for saving his sight.

"There was nothing out there," he said the doctors told him.

So when Shimer said there was a doctor in California who could cure him, Holcomb only agreed to go to prove his coach wrong.

Instead, Holcomb received his second miracle.

Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler had created a treatment that, at the time, hadn't been approved by the FDA. It involved injecting vitamins into the eye. Dr. Boxer Wachler told him he was the perfect candidate for the non-surgical procedure, which now bears Holcomb's name — the Holcomb C3-R.

"That procedure stops the disease," he said. "It doesn't actually improve it a lot, but it stops it from getting worse … and that was fantastic. Then on March 6, 2008, I got the lenses in my eyes. It took maybe 10 minutes per eye, and I got up from the table with 20-20 vision."

Holcomb had gone from the most desperate loneliness to being overwhelmed with gratitude.

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