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

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 4:55 p.m. MDT

Steve Holcomb, left, and Tristan Gale display their Olympic gold medals. Holcomb chronicled his battle with Keratoconus in his utobiography Steve Holcomb, left, and Tristan Gale display their Olympic gold medals. Holcomb chronicled his battle with Keratoconus in his utobiography "But Now I See: My journey from blindness to Olympic Glory. (George Frey, Getty Images, Brant Feldman)

PARK CITY — When Steve Holcomb heard that Olympic silver medalist Jeret "Speedy" Peterson had killed himself, he was as surprised as anyone else.

But unlike most of those who struggled to reconcile the aerial skier's gregarious personality with the fact that depression had driven the 29-year-old to shoot himself on a starry summer night at a lonely canyon campground, Holcomb understood what might compel a person, even a seemingly successful professional athlete, to end his own life.

The bobsledder, who won a gold medal in the 2010 Olympics, understood because he'd battled similar demons when he tried to end his own suffering four years earlier.

Athletes are, by definition, strong.

Showing any kind of frailty — physical or mental — could mean losing even the chance to compete.

Olympic gold medal-winning driver Steven Holcomb attempted suicide early on in his battle with depression. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News) Olympic gold medal-winning driver Steven Holcomb attempted suicide early on in his battle with depression. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

"I didn't want to show weakness," said Holcomb of why he was hesitant to ask for help dealing with his depression. "Sports is incredibly competitive, and politics are always there. You can't afford to have anybody doubt you in anyway."

The perception of athletes as superhuman exacerbates the stigma already associated with a disease like depression. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than a quarter of the population suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. About 6.7 percent of U.S. adults will struggle with depression at some point in their lives — many for multiple years.

Athletes are usually fiercely independent and resourceful, which can make the helpless, hopeless feelings that accompany depression even more isolating.

"There is also a pride factor," he said. "I thought, 'I don't need anybody's help; I can do this.' There are things you don't want people to know because you think they will hold it against you … I couldn't imagine being in a competition and saying, 'Hey, I'm depressed.' It would not be beneficial; People wouldn't embrace it. To me, when I was going through it, it was best not to say anything."

Steven Holcomb (F) and Curtis Tomasevicz of the USA celebrate their first place in the FIBT men's bobsled world cup heat 2, on November 16, 2012 at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah.(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) (George Frey, Getty Images) Steven Holcomb (F) and Curtis Tomasevicz of the USA celebrate their first place in the FIBT men's bobsled world cup heat 2, on November 16, 2012 at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah.(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) (George Frey, Getty Images)

Those fears are often unintentionally confirmed when depressed individuals express their sadness and fear and are told "to just cheer up."

"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."

Holcomb's battle with depression began even before he was diagnosed in 2002 with keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease that would eventually leave him blind. But the illness deepened the inexplicable desperation he felt.

"The (diagnosis) started sending me into a deeper spiral," he said. "I was finally starting to get better as a push athlete, coming into my own in the sport, and now it was just going to end."

USA 1 driver Steven Holcomb, front, gets a pat on the helmet from teammate Justin Olsen, second back, as they pull up in sixth place in the men's four-man bobsled at the FIBT World Cup, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010, in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson) (Associated Press) USA 1 driver Steven Holcomb, front, gets a pat on the helmet from teammate Justin Olsen, second back, as they pull up in sixth place in the men's four-man bobsled at the FIBT World Cup, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010, in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson) (Associated Press)

The graduate of Park City's Winter Sports High School had just switched to bobsled after training as an alpine skier for two years.

Despite his worsening eyesight, the Eagle Scout and former member of the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program continued to compete as a push athlete for the U.S. bobsled team. He moved into the driver's seat in 2001, which only intensified the overwhelming guilt he felt about his worsening vision.

Instead of seeking help, Holcomb, who was "the life of the party" as a teen, became more and more withdrawn. Finally, in 2005, he sought help and was diagnosed with depression.

"I started working on things with someone who helps a lot of athletes," he said, adding that depression among athletes is common because of the extremes created by constant competition. "It started around 2004, at least that's when it started taking a toll on my everyday life."

Steven Holcomb (F) and Curtis Tomasevicz of the USA take first place in the FIBT men's bobsled world cup heat 1, on November 16, 2012 at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah.(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) (George Frey, Getty Images) Steven Holcomb (F) and Curtis Tomasevicz of the USA take first place in the FIBT men's bobsled world cup heat 1, on November 16, 2012 at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah.(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) (George Frey, Getty Images)

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.

"That was the turning point for me mentally," said Holcomb. "That burden, all of a sudden, was gone. I still took medication, and then I got to the point where I could stop."

A year later, Holcomb and his "Night Train" crew became the first Americans in 50 years to win a four-man bobsled World Championship. And a year after that, he and the same crew won the first U.S. gold medal in the sport since 1948.

Holcomb became the most successful American bobsledder in U.S. history without telling anyone he'd tried to end his own life. He assumed that was a secret he'd never tell until the man helping him write his life story, Steve Eubanks pressed him.

"He'd gotten to know me, and he knew there was more to the story," Holcomb said. The rough draft was done when Holcomb sent Eubanks his account of what happened that night in 2007.

"I sat in front of my computer for about 15 minutes before I hit send," he said.

It was thoughts of Peterson's tragic death that moved him to share his secret.

"It came as a huge, huge shock to me," said Holcomb. "We all thought he was doing well, and coming back. I've been in his position and I also know, you do think you're out of it (the sadness), but it doesn't take much for it to come flooding back. The gate between depressed and not depressed … is a picket fence. It doesn't take much to knock it down."

He wants people to know there are millions living with depression, and that they can be successful if they seek treatment.

"It's more common than people think," he said. "It's a little bit of a story that people should probably hear. People who are suffering through depression, it helps to know you're not alone. There is help out there. There are ways to get better."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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