Illuminating: Utah Olympic gold medalist Steve Holcomb shares battle with depression to offer insight, inspire hope
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.”
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.”
Asking for help felt impossible. And when he did manage to reach out, the reaction of some left him even more frustrated.
“There is definitely a misconception about what depression is,” said Holcomb. “I had a few friends who knew I was kind of down and depressed, and they would tell me, ‘Just cheer up. It will get better.’ It’s not just a matter of me saying, ‘I’m not going to be depressed.’ It’s a chemical imbalance.”
At the United States Olympic Committee media summit in September, Holcomb discussed why he decided to include his suicide attempt in his autobiography. It was a terrifying decision that he didn’t commit to until the final draft.
Not even his family knew that in 2007, in a Colorado Springs, Colo., hotel room, he swallowed 73 sleeping pills and too much whiskey. He wanted relief so badly, he didn’t bother to leave a note.
When he woke up, without even a headache, he had a epiphany.
“I was extremely fortunate that it didn’t work out,” he said. “I kind of thought through the next few weeks, ‘I’m here for a bigger purpose. I have something more that I need to do.’ That’s when I thought, ‘I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity.’”
It was in 2008 that Holcomb’s fortune started to turn.
During a team camp in Canada, he hid in his hotel room rather than spend time with his teammates. U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer confronted him about it.
“He didn’t quite understand what I meant by, ‘I’m blind’,” Holcomb recalled. What no one but him knew was that he’d been winning on the world’s toughest tracks with 20-500 vision.
He told Shimer he was quitting. He had no choice. He was overwhelmed with the guilt that he might hurt one of his teammates because he simply couldn’t see.
Shimer found a doctor in California who was pioneering a revolutionary new treatment for keratoconus patients. At the time it hadn’t been FDA approved, but it’s now known as the Holcomb C3-R. It’s non-surgical and it essentially cured Holcomb.
Suddenly, desperation turned to resolve as a grateful Holcomb began to pursue being the first American to win bobsled gold since 1948.
He won the world championships in 2009, and established himself as a favorite for the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
In February 2010, he navigated one of the most dangerous tracks in the world for Olympic gold. He said the victory now provides him with both confidence and freedom.
“I don’t feel a lot more pressure,” he said. “I’ve won my gold medal. So if I don’t win in Sochi, I’m still a gold medalist. That right there takes a lot of pressure off. But at the same time, I’m not going to the games (just to participate).”
He said equipment plays a huge role in a bobsledder’s success, and it may be even more critical in Sochi, a track that was altered to be slower after a luge athlete was killed just before the 2010 Games began.
“If you make a mistake, it’s over,” he said of the Sochi track, “because there is very little speed to gain.”
Holcomb earned an automatic bid on to the U.S. team in both of the seasons leading up to the Olympic Games. But unlike 2010 when he didn’t participate in team selection races, this year, he’s competing every chance he gets. His tactics paid off after he set records during team selection as he won every race in which he entered.
He even took a little extra pride in setting a start record (unofficially) with Fogt on a night when the Canadians were training on the Park City track.
But the real indication of what's possible this winter lies in what he did last weekend. In the first World Cup of the Olympic season, he swept both races. On Friday night, he and Steve Langton won gold in the two-man competition. Then on Saturday, Holcomb, Fogt, Langton and Curt Tomasevicz won the four-man gold medal.
The U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams return to Park City's Olympic Park this weekend for the second World Cup competition.
Holcomb said he is so far from the man he was on that bleak night in 2007 that it's sometimes difficult for even him to comprehend.
He said most of the reaction to his story has been positive.
“People have opened up a little bit, and that’s kind of one of the reasons I wrote it was not only to deal with the keratoconus, but depression,” he said. “When you speak out about it, it gives (other) people a bit of confidence to open up themselves.”
He admits that asking for help may have been even harder because he’s an elite athlete.
“You don’t want people to think you’re weak,” he said. “I didn’t want my teammates to know — definitely not. They’re not going to hop in a sled with a guy who’s depressed.” And he had convinced himself that admitting to the reality of his situation — physically and emotionally — would jeopardize a career he’d been working for since he was in high school.
No one would see promise in a nearly blind, perpetually sad athlete.
“How can you be motivated to go win a race if you’re not even motivated to wake up in the morning?” he said.
So he retreated from life, from his friends and teammates, and even from his family.
“I was very good at hiding it,” he said. “It was not their fault (that they didn’t know he was suicidal). I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t open up about it.”
Which is exactly the reason that he chose to write about it when he published his life story last year.
“I believe there is a bigger purpose for me,” he said. “Not necessarily winning gold medals. But as big as I’d like to think the gold medals are, I think the purpose is letting people know that there is help out there. There is hope.”
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