I have a hard time believing that Steven is not around. —Jean Schaefer
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Jean Schaefer waved a flag, shook a cowbell and cheered as loud and as long as she could for someone else’s sons.
Standing the crowd at the Alpensia Sliding Center this weekend, the Park City woman wasn’t sure she wanted to come to the Olympic Games to see the sport her son, Steven Holcomb, loved so much.
“I fluctuated,” said Schafer, the mother of three-time Olympic medalist Steve Holcomb, who died last May at the age of 37. “I’m going to come, I don’t know if I can come. I think I wanted some closure, perhaps. As we were walking out there, I was thinking, ‘Gee, I wish I was here to watch Steven. It’s really different to be here and watch his teammates and know he’s not there.”
The reality of Holcomb’s death, which medical testing attributed to a lethal mix of medication and alcohol, is still tough for Schaefer to accept.
“I have a hard time believing that Steven is not around,” she said. “It’s been very hard for me to accept that. Because he was an adult, and he lived away from home, and he’d just bop home two or three or four times a year. It was very normal for me to go an extended period of time and not see him or maybe just text or touch base with him once a week. So that’s a very normal pattern for us.”
The cruel reality sneaks up on her.
She won’t see those warm, brown eyes.
She can’t have one of those famous rib-cracking hugs.
She will never be able to settle into the easy, loving rhythm they found when he’d come home to stay in the town where grew up.
“Everything, everything, everything,” she said of what she misses. “It’s an unnatural progression. Children don’t die before their parents. They shouldn’t. I talk about the new normal. I have to figure out what normal is because normal is gone.”
So cloaked in her grief, she finds some solace in doing something she knows her son would want her to do — support his teammates.
“You know what is a great distraction, is caring about how his teammates do,” said Schaefer. “I focus on them, and wanting them to be successful, and get into the moment of racing.”
She said she knows some of the athletes, like fellow Utahn Chris Fogt, who came out of retirement to make another run at gold in Pyeongchang with Holcomb, are struggling with how to honor Holcomb with a less-than-Olympic-medal performances.
Fogt, in particular, was emotional after his sled was in danger of not even making the cut for a fourth run on Sunday.
“I feel for them so much because I know today was really hard for them to being with," she said "And then not to realize their dreams (of winning a medal), how disappointing that is to them, I don’t want them to feel like they didn’t do everything they could.”
She understands that, like her, they are adjusting to a new normal without the man who wasn’t just the most successful bobsled pilot in U.S. history, but also a friend, mentor and teacher to all of those involved in the sliding sports.
“The outpouring of love for Steven from the U.S. Bobsled (and Skeleton) and Luge federations has been almost overwhelming,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears. “It’s been huge. It’s been a wonderful supportive organization for him, and I just hope he felt that when he was alive. Because sometimes we wait until it’s too late to let people know how we appreciate them. I hope he knew that. I think he did. I think he knew he had an impact on them, but I don’t know if he really, totally felt that all the time.”
Holcomb discussed his struggles with depression, including a suicide attempt, in his book, “But Now I See: My Journey From Blindness to Olympic Gold.”
In recent years, however, Holcomb busied himself recruiting new talent, mentoring young drivers, and speaking out on mental health issues and the medical procedure that saved his eyesight.
Schaefer’s trip to South Korea came from Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, who not only pioneered the procedure that saved Holcomb’s vision, but also set up a foundation called Giving Vision that funded treatment for patients without the means to pay for it themselves.
“The conventional treatment is an invasive corneal transplant, and 12 other doctors told Steven that was his only option,” Boxer Wachler said. “He wanted to make sure people were not in that same situation, that they’d have the information."
Since Holcomb’s death, Boxer Wachler renamed the procedure after Holcomb (Holcomb C3R) and the foundation (Giving Vision) after the bobsled pilot, with the goal of helping as many people as possible.
“I realized one of the things we could do to honor him and his legacy was, number one, name the foundation after him,” Boxer Wachler said. “And to make the foundation really about the fiscal. That was important to Steven, and I want to carry out his wishes. We want to make sure his legacy endures for generations to come.”
Schaefer is grateful for the effort to not only honor her son, but continue something that he gave so much energy in life.
“It means a lot,” she said. “To have his legacy preserved because it’s something that he cared deeply about.”
Schaefer made her way to the track both days of bobsled competition, joining coaches on the platform to watch some of the Team USA runs.
“He truly loved what he did,” Schaefer said. “He enjoyed that competitive edge, and, ever since he was a child, he wanted to go to the Olympics.”
She jokes that he always thought it would be in Alpine skiing because he referred to himself as “the next Tommy Moe.”
“It’s exciting to see your kids fulfill their dreams,” she said, smiling. “But it was surprising, yes, because he was a small town boy. The Park City that he grew up in is not the Park City that exists today.” Schaefer intends to relish all the ways her son’s legacy will endure, including the fact that his Olympic medals are being stored at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as is his storied sled, The Night Train.
She laughs about that because Holcomb worked every minute of his life to earn those honors, but he never felt they belonged to him. She tells a series of stories about letting his nephews wear his medals whenever they wanted, or taking the time after a World Cup in Park City to show the medals to a young boy who’d waited around afterward.
“He didn’t call it his medal,” Boxer Wachler said. “He called it America’s medal.”