WINTERBERG, Germany — Every time Steve Holcomb jumps in a bobsled, he wants to win.
That is, after all, how the Park City native amassed 50 medals — half of which are gold.
And this fall, it looked like Holcomb, the reigning Olympic champion, had unlocked some kind of secret formula. He won every World Cup race — both two-man and four-man — in the first half of the season. In seven races, he earned seven gold medals.
His success frustrated and befuddled competitors.
Canadian pilot Lyndon Rush summed it up after Holcomb’s fifth win: “What Holcomb is doing ... it’s embarrassing.” Holcomb never worried about the streak.
While he's always raced to win, he also didn’t expect to be on the top of the podium every time he raced this fall.
“It’s surreal and a little overwhelming,” said Holcomb after his seventh win. In fact, he nearly always pointed out ways he could be better, or brought up details upon which he could improve. His results may have been perfect, but his racing, he reminded everyone, was not.
Even before he left for Germany, Holcomb said he didn’t think his teams would be able to sweep the remaining World Cup races.
“But we’ll do our best,” he said.
“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” — Abraham Lincoln
While most people expected Holcomb to lose a race at some point, almost no one expected the veteran driver to crash — twice.
After all, the last time he crashed was in the 2009-10 season in Altenberg, Germany. Interestingly, it came during the same season he became the first American in 62 years to win gold in four-man bobsled.
But he crashed the same day, on the same curve, as USA 2 driver Nick Cunningham crashed as the U.S. teams trained for this weekend’s double World Cup. Then he crashed during the actual competition.
Almost anticipating the shock, Holcomb immediately took to Facebook to explain that what happened was unfortunate — but not an omen.
“Don't mistake my crash yesterday as weakness,” Holcomb wrote on his Facebook page. “On the contrary, it shows the commitment, courage, and determination my team has to win. In order to get better and go faster than you ever have before, you must step outside your comfort zone, try things you've never tried, do things you've never done, and see just how far you can push your limits. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Either way, you get back in the sled and go again.”
Holcomb has dealt with much tougher situations than driving a bobsled down a treacherous track. Holcomb, a naturally shy person, shared his story in his autobiography after the 2010 Olympics. The former Alpine skier turned bobsledder nearly went blind because of a degenerative eye disease (keratoconus) and considered retiring in 2007. Instead, struggling with chemical depression and facing the end of his athletic career, he tried to take his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills.
"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."
When he woke up the next morning, he took that as a sign that his purpose didn’t begin or end with bobsledding success.
He confided in his coaches, who found Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, who’d invented an innovative procedure so new it hadn’t even been approved by the FDA. The vitamin injections cured Holcomb’s eye disease, and he went on to win gold in Vancouver.
“Obviously, you always want to win, but you want to win by skiing a race that you’re proud of and you feel like you really challenged yourself and left it all out there.” — Bode Miller
This season, team USA enjoy successful partnerships with Bo-Dyn, the designer of the four-man sled, including Night Train (driven by Cunningham this last weekend) and Night Train 2 (driven by Holcomb). In two-man, BMW designed new sleds that have been getting rave reviews — and podium results — even as pilots tweak the machines.
Holcomb said innovative new sleds, tireless technicians and the best push athletes in the world have helped the U.S. bobsled team, including himself, enjoy unprecedented success.
Holcomb said he was wary of the holiday break because he wanted “to keep the momentum going.
“I’m trying to relax, but still keep my head in the game,” he said before leaving for Germany. “I have a lot of support, and it’s easier, keeps you focused to see all the people standing behind you.”
Holcomb has seemed hungrier this season than ever before. His relentless competitiveness and quest for perfection seem almost at odds with the fact that he’s reached the top of the mountain. He owns Olympic gold.
He said trying to explain how differently he feels preparing to attempt to win Olympic Gold again is extremely difficult.
“This time I wasn’t much worried about making the team,” he said. “This one is a little different. If I don’t win, I still walk away an Olympic champion. They can’t take that title away from me. At the same time, I want to win. But I’m prepared, and when you’re prepared, there is no pressure.”
“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” — John Wooden
He eased up in the run up to Vancouver, a mistake he said he would not make this season. Whenever there was a competition, even if he didn’t need to fight for a spot, he played the game.
It’s probably the reason he didn’t realize he’d won 50 medals in his career until someone else mentioned it to him.
“It’s kind of a cool stat,” he said, admitting the medals and trophies are spread out among his family members. “I didn’t realize that’s what it was. ... It’s hard to believe. I feel like I’ve only won a few times. It’s one of those things where you never remember the good things, just the bad ones.”
Maybe that’s because for all he’s achieved, Holcomb still sees himself as a man with goals to accomplish. He’s comfortable, confident — but not complacent.
At the last World Cup on his home track in Park City, Holcomb said a pilot is always looking for that perfect run. Even with a gold medal hanging around his neck, he admitted he was still searching for that run.
And while some people, possibly some of his competitors or a few of his critics, may see this weekend's crashes as evidence that he’s vulnerable, others will see it as evidence of his courage.
Whatever the crashes mean or reveal about the pilot will be decided, for the most part, by Holcomb himself. His situation this weekend is simply a reminder that all of us, even champions, will have dark, disappointing, even frightening days.
We will all crash.
Luckily, it isn’t the difficulties that define us. It’s how we respond to challenges that allows us to be champions — whether we receive a medal for our fortitude or just another shot at happiness.
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