Holcomb’s father looks back
Steve Holcomb’s dad shares recollections of his Olympic son’s life
LAKE PLACID — When Steve Holcomb was growing up in Utah, his father, who is also named Steve, said his son never talked about being an Olympian. His dad said all Steve wanted to do was get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
The elder Holcomb also said his boy had a very special talent for being fast in whatever he did. As it turned out, that speed, along with following his father’s advice to not quit, helped Steve Holcomb become a three-time Olympian and the most decorated athlete in the history of United States bobsledding.
Holcomb passed away last Saturday at age 37, and for half of his life, he followed a path in the sport of bobsled that carried him all the way to the top step of the Olympic podium. During his 18-year career with Team USA, Holcomb won three Olympic medals, including his memorable four-man gold in 2010 in Vancouver, two bronze in Sochi in 2014, six World Championship medals and 60 World Cup medals.
Holcomb was a native of Park City, Utah, but as the years passed, he eventually began to call Lake Placid his home. The Enterprise was fortunate enough and honored to spend some time with his father Friday morning at the Olympic Training Center before he returned home to Park City, a day after his son’s ashes were spread on the bobsled track and the finish deck at Mount Van Hoevenberg.
Like any loving father, the elder Holcomb had plenty of recollections of his son. The following are some of the stories and reflections he shared.
ADE: Tell me about your boy.
HOLCOMB: I was going to bring a picture of the 2014 bobsled team. I should have. It’s big row of huge, strong guys and down at the end, there’s this little bald guy. He’s the only one not smiling. He’s got a little, tight-lipped look on his face. That would do the job.
ADE: What was Steve like away from the world of bobsledding, away from the competition?
HOLCOMB: Not a whole lot different. He was real quiet. He liked everybody, and if he didn’t like them he just didn’t say anything. The best part was, the medals don’t matter, he was just a good guy.
ADE: What are some memories of Steve when he was younger?
HOLCOMB: He was kind of a whiner when he was a little kid, but then he started getting grown up and faster and being more proficient in what he did. He was into all kinds of sports. We live in a small town like this and I was his coach for soccer, for football, baseball. He was on these teams with his little buddies. He was just an all-around nice kid, but he had this little talent of his speed, and he was always interested in seeing how fast he could run compared to everyone else. Any kind of running. You play baseball, you still have to run. He’d steal a base before they’d get the ball out of their hand. Soccer, he’d just kill everybody. He’d just outrun everybody. Football was the same way. We’d give him the ball, he’d get loose and it was over. He was a good teammate, and among all of his buddies in Park City, I don’t think there was a kid who didn’t want to be his pal. He’s just that kind of guy.
ADE: Did Steve ever talk about being in the Olympics when he was young?
HOLCOMB: He didn’t care about the Olympics. He only wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. For anything — who could eat the most hot dogs, or whatever — he had to to get in there. That was his lifelong dream. He didn’t do it, but he got pretty close. Eating hot dogs is not nearly as cool as getting a gold medal from the Olympics.
ADE: How did Steve become involved in bobsledding.
HOLCOMB: I tell you how it started. He was an accomplished ski racer. We were coming back from a ski race and sitting in a gas station outside of Park City. A truck pulls in, a little white pickup truck with a bobsled hanging off the back. He said ‘Hey dad, look, look. There’s a bobsled. There’s a bobsled.’ I said ‘Go ask the guy about it.’ He said ‘No, no, no, you go.’ He was too shy, he wouldn’t do it, so I went over and it was Bill Tavares (a U.S. bobsled coach). I got his card, got some information, and that summer he went and tried out for bobsled.
Holcomb explained that his son’s first step toward becoming a bobsled athlete was attending a testing session in Salt Lake City. He described how it unfolded.
“There were all these tough guys from Hill Air Force Base, the Marines, college football players and all that. And then there’s Steven — this little guy, just not very big at all, maybe 170 pounds, maybe 160, I don’t know. And they started doing the six-item test where they sprint and then they do the two-footed hop, throw the shot put from between their legs, the vertical jump.
“Every time, they were saying ‘Who is that kid?’ He’s only 18 and they’re all about 25. Finally, they said you need to go to the summer camp in Lake Placid. I sent him on the plane and then I came to pick him up. He sat in the airport down in Albany for hours. They were going to send a van down to get them and they didn’t. Then Dave Owens, and Paul Weiss, those were big monster guys who were on his team at the time, getting off their planes. Steven had enough chutzpah to say ‘Are you guys bobsledders?’ ‘Yea, yea, who are you?’ Well, I’m Steve Holcomb. I’m going to the tryouts. Well you can come with us. He came up here and he made the team. The rest is history.”
Steve Holcomb’s first Olympics as a driver were the 2006 games in Torino, Italy, but just days before they took place, his dad had to convince his son not to quit after hitting a big bump in the road when the Americans were sent to Olympic team tryouts in Europe. Two driver slots were on the line, and in the end, Steve Holcomb beat out Mike Kohn, who had been performing better in the weeks leading up to those games.
“Probably one of the best phone calls for he and I to ever have made in his history. One afternoon, I was sitting in my house and he called me from Igls in Austria. He said ‘Dad, I’m coming home.’ What do you mean you’re coming home? ‘Well, Kohn has taken my runners, has taken all my athletes. I don’t have any one to push. I don’t have any good runners. I can’t win. I said don’t give me that. You’re not coming home. You go talk to (coach Brian) Shimer. You go get some runners, get a couple guys and you go in there and win that race. He called me a couple days later. I didn’t talk to him. He left me a message. He said ‘Dad. Kohn’s going to Munich and I’m going to Torino.’ It was the raceoff for the Olympics. If Steve hadn’t won, I don’t know what he would have done. He may have just been skiing in Park City or something. I think suddenly he realized ‘I can win.'”
Holcomb had been to about 20 of his son’s races around the world, including his historic gold medal win in Vancouver, and another monumental victory in Lake Placid the year before at the 2009 World Championships. He added however, all the fame and his son’s constant criss-crossing the country and the world also made being America’s most renowned bobsledder a difficult lifestyle.
“I think that pressure, it’s what got Steven. I think that’s what happened. He was exhausted. They were doing a documentary on him, he had been out in California, back to Florida, up to Tennessee, back out to California, back down to Florida, then he came back here. Man, that kid’s going 90 all the time. He’s not a good sleeper. He was all tangled up.”
Holcomb said he hoped to someday return to Lake Placid, the small village where his son launched and continued his legendary career, and ultimately, called his home. He also added that he’ll continue to root for rest of the American bobsledders, who now have to move forward without their friend, brother, teammate and their brightest shining star.
“This was his home. It’s hard to think he’s from Park City anymore. He was born there, but Lake Placid was his home. We have to continue pushing Steve’s teammates on. He’s just the beginning. We have to keep it going.”