He has the most successful career of anyone ever in the history of this sport ever in the United States. —Brant Feldman, Holcomb's agent and close friend
One of the best bobsled drivers the United States has ever produced was found dead at the age of 37, Saturday afternoon in the city where he trained.
My first introduction to Park City native Steven Holcomb was in 2009 after he’d won his first World Championship gold medal in four-man bobsled. It was a historic victory, ending a 50-year drought for the United States in a sport that enjoys a much higher profile in other countries.
He was overwhelmed with the attention that accompanied the accomplishment and told me so. Still, he answered my questions about what it meant to do what no U.S. athlete had been able to do in five decades of competition.
“Honestly, it has yet to sink in,” he told me then. “And I’m not sure it ever will.”
Those words — his words — seem to best capture how it felt to hear that the life of the young man who overcame a degenerative eye disease and depression to become the most decorated U.S. bobsled driver in history ended while he slept in his room at the Lake Placid Olympic Training facility.
“He has the most successful career of anyone ever in the history of this sport ever in the United States,” said Brant Feldman, Holcomb’s agent and close friend. “We don’t have any knowledge about what happened until an autopsy, but whatever happened, hopefully, he went out peacefully.”
In the years since that first interview about his first World Championship, Holcomb grew more comfortable in the spotlight.
He didn’t have a choice.
A downhill skier who converted to bobsled in 1998, Holcomb became one of the most successful drivers in the world. The guy with a shy smile and a sharp wit won 60 World Cup medals, 10 World Championship medals and three Olympic medals – including gold in Vancouver’s four-man competition, the first for team USA in 62 years.
Holcomb was a rare mix of humility and confidence. He was intensely competitive and incredibly generous with his knowledge and insight.
After winning his Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, he was effusive and emotional.
“This is an amazing feeling,” said Holcomb, who named the most treacherous turn on the Whistler track (50-50, because those were a driver’s odds of making it through without crashing). “You kind of dream about it for years, and then all of a sudden it’s happening. It’s hard to put into words.”
He cleared his throat and blinked back tears before adding, “I don’t know. It’s just kind of overwhelming.”
Six years before he stood atop that podium with Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Curt Tomasevicz, a degenerative eye disease threatened to end Holcomb’s promising career.
He was diagnosed with keratoconus and sunk into a deep depression. In his 2013 autobiography, he revealed that he attempted suicide in 2007 by taking 73 sleeping pills and “too much whiskey.” He said he was just desperate for relief.
He told the Deseret News in December of 2013 that he woke up with the realization that he “was 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.”
Holcomb kept driving, even while hiding just how little he could see of the tracks he had to navigate at speeds of 80 and 90 mph. Eventually, he went to his coaches for help, believing he’d have to retire. Instead, the U.S. coaches helped him find a doctor whose innovative treatment (C3-R) not only stopped the degeneration, it helped recover some of the sight he’d lost.
His coaches said during the 2010 Games that every setback Holcomb suffered — including his vision — made him stronger.
Alpine native Chris Fogt began competing with Holcomb in both two-man and four-man during the 2013 season. He said Holcomb was “such a good pilot that if you give him a fast start, he’ll win or be top three, every single race.”
He won four gold medals in four weeks with Holcomb, and then they won bronze in four-man in what turned to be the closest Olympic bobsled competition in history.
Holcomb also won bronze in the two-man competition with Steve Langton.
Feldman said that Holcomb was in Los Angeles last week working on a number of projects, including a documentary of his life.
“He was in a good place,” he said. “He was really excited to take his dad to the Indy 500 at the end of the month with a new sponsor after he missed his 70th birthday (competing) in PyeongChang at the last World Cup.”
Holcomb was an avid video gamer who seemed reserved to those who didn’t know him, but warm and outgoing to those lucky enough to call him friend.
“People loved this guy,” Feldman said. “He was a humble guy who was really loyal to his teammates.”
Holcomb asked Feldman to convince one of his sponsors to provide helmets for two U.S. female athletes, including Elena Meyers Taylor, winner of two Olympic medals. She was one of dozens of athletes who took to Twitter Saturday to express heartbreak, surprise and sadness over Holcomb’s death.
“Our entire Olympic family is shocked and saddened by the incredibly tragic loss today of Steven Holcomb,” said Scott Blackmun, USOC CEO. “Steve was a tremendous athlete and (an) even better person, and his perseverance and achievements were an inspiration to us all.”
USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steel said, “it would be easy to focus on the loss in terms of his Olympic medals and enormous athletic contributions to the organization, but USA Bobsled and Skeleton is a family, and right now we are trying to come to grips with the loss of our teammate, our brother and our friend.”
Holcomb became a teacher and mentor to many of the other drivers. He brought a generosity and collaborative spirit, while retaining that competitive drive.
“He was excited by what the team had just done,” he said, pointing out that both Langton and Fogt were coming out of retirement to try to win a spot in Holcomb’s sled for 2018 Olympics.
“They came back because of Holcomb,” Feldman said. “I have notes coming from all over the place. Everyone wanted him to win. He was the oldest athlete on tour, and the fans loved him.”
Holcomb was a joy to work with and tough to understand.
Holcomb was an elite athlete and everyman. He was thoughtful, and he was flawed.
He was afraid and he was courageous, and in the end, it is as much his contradictions as his accomplishments that made his success seem like it belonged to all of us.