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Illuminating: Utah Olympic gold medalist Steve Holcomb shares battle with depression to offer insight, inspire hope

Published: Friday, Dec. 6 2013 9:15 a.m. MST

Three Utah sledders are favorites to make the 2014 USA Olympic Team, bobsledder Chris Fogt, skeleton slider Noelle Pikus-Pace and bobsledder Steve Holcomb (left to right) are participating at the United States Olympic Committee 2013 Media Summit at the Canyons Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, in Park City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Steve Holcomb stepped out of the bobsled and obliged beckoning photographers by pulling his lycra bodysuit open, revealing the Superman undershirt stretched across his muscular chest.

Still smiling, he returned to the task of hauling the nearly 500-pound bobsled from the icy track to the scales, joking as he did so with his teammate, Chris Fogt, and track officials.

He offered reporters an unsolicited opinion about the absurdity of a rule change that requires his record-setting time to come during international competition for it to be official.

Then the 33-year-old Park City native sits down to talk about everything from the technical requirements of a bobsled driver to how it feels to be home for a few days.

Focused, friendly and unashamed to embrace that which he once tried so desperately to hide that it nearly ended his life, Holcomb seems every bit the kind of larger-than-life figure needed to make bobsledding relevant to American sports fans.

It is easy to see how he powered the U.S. team to its first Olympic gold medal in the sport in 62 years, and why he owns two world championships in a sport where hundredths of seconds separate champions from participants.

What’s not so easy to see is how one of the most talented bobsled drivers in the world, and the most accomplished in U.S. history, could struggle with depression that was so dark he tried to take his own life.

“Once it starts … it’s like a snowball,” he said of how a medical condition that threatened his career in the sport created isolation and guilt that began a desperate spiral that ended in a 2007 suicide attempt. “It’s a chemical reaction in your brain. It actually starts to feel good to feel bad.”

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Holcomb has always dreamed of Olympic glory. When he was in high school, he thought he would win gold in Alpine ski racing.

His ski career essentially ended in 1998, when at the age of 18 he attended a camp meant to find future bobsled stars. The former football player was good enough that he won free housing at a camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.

He was a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete program until 2006, and by then he had established himself as one of the country’s most promising drivers.

While he looked like a rising star to everyone else, he felt like a fraud. A degenerative eye disease (keratoconus) was slowly stealing his sight.

“It really started around 2004,” Holcomb told the Deseret News last winter. “At least, that’s when it started taking a toll on my everyday life.”

As he found ways to compensate, to adapt, he felt more dishonest, more isolated and ultimately more depressed.

“I was holding out 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.”

The sadness started to feel suffocating.

"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."

He began taking antidepressents, which caused him to gain weight. That caused people to make fun of him, which pushed him further into depression.

“Everything was falling apart around me,” he said. “Over time, that wears on you.”

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