Steve Holcomb, my bobsled hero
Like the rest of the bobsled world and members of the Olympic family, I was stunned and deeply saddened late Saturday afternoon when I received a phone call that Steve Holcomb was found dead in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid earlier in the day.
When I was very young growing up in Buffalo, in the days when there was no internet, and even no cable television, I was first introduced to bobsledding when I saw races broadcast on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Bobsledding fascinated me, and to this day, I often say if I had grown up in Lake Placid, I would have been a bobsledder. I liked the sport that much.
After moving to the Adirondacks in November 1987, I was fortunate enough to witness bobsled racing firsthand. In fact, the first job I landed here was that of the race announcer at the 1980 track, half of which no longer exists.
A decade later I was a sportswriter covering everything from high school competitions to rugby, show jumping, lacrosse, ski racing and ice hockey at all levels. Among the dozens of sporting events I’ve attended during my 20-plus years working for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and Lake Placid News, bobsledding has always been at or at least near the top of the list.
When World Cup racing was slated for Lake Placid, I’d have those dates circled on my calendar. And by the time Steve Holcomb rose to prominence as America’s top bobsled driver, I wasn’t going to the track anymore just to cover the races. I was going there to watch Steve Holcomb
As a sportswriter, I always try to be neutral and not root for a particular athlete or team to win. Just report on the story. But that didn’t turn out to be the case whenever Steve Holcomb was piloting USA 1. I always wanted Holcomb to come out on top. He became one of my biggest heroes in the world of sports, and most of the time when he was on the track — and especially when it came to the biggest races — he usually delivered.
Steve Holcomb, along with his Night Train crew of really great teammates Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Curtis Tomasevicz, provided me with two of the most memorable moments I’ll ever have as a sports reporter, and as a fan of bobsledding as well.
The first came on March 1, 2009, when Holcomb piloted the Night Train to victory, nearly a second ahead of his next closest rival, on his home track at Mount Van Hoevenberg right here in Lake Placid during the FIBT World Championships. That four-man win broke a 50-year gold medal drought for the United States in four-man at the World Championships, and what a wild, joyful scene it was.
That historic victory set the stage for Holcomb’s biggest achievement as a bobsled pilot a year later, when he struck Olympic gold in the four-man bobsled at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to cover those Winter Games for our newspapers. In my mind, the main objectives in going there were to cover native Billy Demong winning a gold medal in nordic combined skiing and see Holcomb accomplish the same feat in bobsledding.
Demong pulled it off on Feb. 25, and I was ecstatic watching a home-grown athlete who lived just down the road from me make history for the U.S. nordic combined program. Two days later, Holcomb blew me away with his gold-medal performance on a day when I really had to be creative, as well as make the most of my 6-foot-3-inch frame, to get a photo of the triumphant Holcomb and the Night Train riding up the finish ramp to give America its first four-man Olympic gold in 62 years.
Thousands of fans had gathered at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Feb. 27 to watch runs 3 and 4 of the four-man competition. Like the first two runs held the day before, Holcomb and his crew laid down the fastest time on run No. 3, which meant the Night Train would be the last sled on the track in the fourth and final heat. I found a spot to take pictures close to the top of the finish ramp but away from the mob scene in the photographers’ area at the finish deck.
As each successive team completed their 2010 Olympics, the scene grew wilder as the crowd got bigger and bigger along the ramp in anticipation of seeing the top sleds finish their runs. When Holcomb and the Night Train were ready at the start line, fans were literally hanging over the finish ramp ready to cheer for the Americans. For me it was a battle, but I leaned over the track around waving arms and American flags and got my “money shot” of a hero and his team celebrating as the brakes of the Night Train showered my beaming face with ice.
That photo — with ice spraying, Mesler jubilantly punching his right arm high into the air and Holcomb starting to stretch his arms skyward — is my favorite of the thousands and thousands I’ve ever taken. Two years later, when the Night Train crew reunited at the 2012 World Championships in Lake Placid, I was lucky enough to have the whole Night Train team and coach Brian Shimer autograph a print I made of the picture. Of course, Steve Holcomb was the first person who signed it for me.
I certainly didn’t know Steve Holcomb the way his family, teammates, coaches and others who crossed his path every day did. But I saw him frequently, especially since he spent much of the offseason living and training in Lake Placid. I even had a chance to get out on the golf course with him.
At the races, he was always available for a chat on the finish ramp or on hand for an interview in the “sled shed” where U.S. teams work on their sleds. Whether Holcomb had a good day or a not-so-good day on the track, he was a humble man who was always there to take the time for interviews, He was a smart guy and just plain nice.
As soon as I heard of Holcomb’s passing, I immediately thought about all his teammates. How do you continue with your training without a great friend and the face of USA bobsled right there beside you? I do know that my next trip to the track will be difficult. It will be empty. It will be sad. After all, when I go to the track, I go to see Steve Holcomb.
Rest in peace Steve Holcomb. I will miss you, and I know the rest of the world will too.