LAKE PLACID - Steven Holcomb wasn't happy three years ago when his coaches on the U.S. bobsled team decided to keep him in Lake Placid to practice on the home track for the world championships instead of competing in the World Cup.
Holcomb's not complaining this time around. The world championships return this week to the tricky track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, and the reigning Olympic gold medalist in four-man was more than happy to skip a couple of races to get ready. It represents the chance for a dose of redemption in a season that didn't live up to expectations, partly because of Mother Nature.
Holcomb was second in four-man at Igls, Austria, in early December, his only trip to the podium in the discipline. He also took bronze in two-man at Igls; silver at La Plagne, France; fifth at Altenberg, Germany; and a fourth in both disciplines at St. Moritz, Switzerland, finishing just 0.10 off the podium in two-man and 0.07 in four-man.
After being introduced by North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi, who is standing on a chair, FIBT president Ivo Ferriani speaks to the crowd gathered at Nicola’s on Main Street in Lake Placid during a reception Thursday evening to welcome the 2012 Bobsled and Skeleton World Championships to Lake Placid. This marks the ninth time the event is being held in the Olympic Village. Racing started today with the first two runs of women’s bobsled.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
That was it.
"The season started off great. When it was a level playing field, we did well," Holcomb said. "Then bad weather just kind of hit us. It's not a total loss. It was just unfortunate and kind of a little blow to the ego. You lose a little bit of momentum, a little bit of motivation."
Still, Holcomb and his crew of Steve Langton, Justin Olsen, and Curt Tomasevicz rank sixth in four-man, behind the top three sleds - Alexsandr Zubkov of Russia and the German duo of Maximilian Arndt and Manuel Machata. Holcomb ranks seventh in two-man, which has been dominated by Swiss driver Beat Hefti (three gold, two silver and three bronze medals) and fifth in combined. Thomas Florschuetz also most likely would have been in the mix for Germany, but his season ended with a broken leg suffered in a crash in the fourth race of the season, at Altenberg. Florschuetz was leading the two-man standings at the time.
Holcomb has reason to be optimistic. He piloted his four-man "Night Train" sled to victory at the 2009 worlds, dominating every run on his home track to capture the first title for the U.S men at worlds since 1959. He bested defending champion Andre Lange of Germany, one of the greatest drivers in the sport's history, by nearly one second, an eye-popping margin in a sliding sport.
"Everybody knows we won the World Cup here last year and the year before that and the world championships before that," said Holcomb, who also won bronze in two-man at the 2009 worlds. "We've had a pretty good winning streak. I think we can continue it. The guys are healthy, the sleds are in great shape. It's motivating. We're looking at a pretty good world championships."
Competition started this morning with the first two heats of women's bobsled. The first two runs of the men's two-man are Saturday morning, followed by the final two runs of the women's event, which will be staged at night. The men finish on Sunday morning and team competition takes place in the afternoon. The skeleton world championships for men and women will be held next week, followed by the four-man bobsled on the weekend.
Joining Holcomb in four-man will be Lake Placid's John Napier piloting USA-2 and rookie Nick Cunningham in USA-3.
The U.S. will field three sleds in the women's bobsled competition. Elana Meyers will team with Katie Eberling in USA-1, while Bree Schaaf and brakewoman Emily Azevedo will partner in USA-2, and Jazmine Fenlator will compete with Ingrid Marcum in USA-3. Meyers sits eighth and Schaaf 10th in World Cup, well behind the top three German sleds piloted by Cathleen Martini, Anja Schneiderheinze, and Sandra Kiriasis.
Women's skeleton athletes Katie Uhlaender and Annie O'Shea both hold records on the Lake Placid track and promise to be threats for podium finishes. Matt Antoine and John Daly will race for the U.S. in the men's skeleton event.
Meyers is hopeful she can follow in the footsteps of Shauna Rohbock, who won silver at the 2009 worlds with Meyers as her brakewoman. Meyers, also the brakewoman on Erin Pac's run to the bronze at Whistler in the 2010 Winter Olympics, was third-fastest in Thursday's training runs, just ahead of her teammates - Schaaf was fourth and Fenlator fifth - and just behind reigning Olympic gold medalist Kaillie Humphries and her teammate, Helen Upperton.
"I'm very excited to come back to Lake Placid, but at the same time I know it's by no means going to be an easy task to come out with a medal," said Meyers, in her second year as a driver in World Cup. "We've got a lot of experienced drivers. I have a lot of trips in Lake Placid, but it is one of the most difficult tracks in the world.
"One of the hardest things for a newer pilot is to be consistent. On a track that's difficult to be consistent for four runs, by no stretch of the imagination is it an easy task, but I'm very excited and up for the challenge."
Weather could be an issue in what has been an unusually mild winter in the Adirondacks. While skiing remains excellent at nearby Whiteface Mountain, temperatures on Thursday were above freezing and conditions at the Mount Van Hoevenberg track were soft and deteriorating at the end of training. Getting a low draw Thursday night and being one of the first sleds down in the morning was shaping up as being paramount for success. Snow showers were in the forecast and the thermometer was expected to rise to near 40 degrees.