As sports journalists, we are not supposed to have favorites. We aim to give all athletes the same coverage. But sometimes, we can’t help it. Certain athletes just become our favorites. They’re the type of people who don’t just give rote answers that sound practiced and insincere. They open themselves up to us, share their ups and downs, let us see the struggles that come in route to their victories, and thus let us portray them to their fans as not just champions but humans as well.
Steve Holcomb was one of these athletes. I first met him in November 2009 at a IBSF World Cup in Lake Placid, where he drove USA I to first in the four-man race and second to teammate John Napier in the two-man. Holcomb was by then a world champion and overall World Cup leader, and he joked with the media about what to do with the bouquet of flowers that he had just received on the podium. Then he mostly talked about Napier’s win, and how he had told the younger bobsled pilot between runs (of the two-run race) to hang out, chill out, and pretend it’s a practice run. Holcomb had the drive and talent to win, but he seemed to care about his teammates as much as himself.
In the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, Holcomb had more and more media demands, which he handled patiently and with humor and grace. With his world championship title from 2009 and the story of the blindness that he had overcome in 2007, he was suddenly on the radar of press members who don’t normally cover bobsled. Who was this guy who had once driven a bobsled while blind? He talked about keratoconus and the corneal collagen cross-linking surgery that returned his sight for as long as reporters asked questions.
Even after he became an Olympic gold medalist — the first USA bobsled pilot in 62 years to win a four-man race at the Olympic Games — he remained a humble guy who always had time to chat with reporters. When he began his quest to win gold in the two-man in Sochi, he explained clearly and concisely the difference between driving a four-man versus a two-man sled—like driving a Greyhound bus versus driving a sports car, he said. He might have answered this exact same question for the hundredth time — while standing at the finish in Lake Placid with temperatures hovering near zero degrees. But he never sounded impatient or exasperated. He loved his sport and shared that passion with anyone who showed interest.
I met up with him at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid in August 2013 to talk about the upcoming Sochi Olympic Winter Games, and he talked in as much detail as he could about the endless effort that goes into developing state-of-the-art sleds. He seemed to put as much time into helping Bo-Dyne, then BMW perfect bobsleds as he did into training. And he conveyed the trials of developing new sleds in terms that his audience could grasp — describing to me what it’s like to tweak a sled as if it were an alpine ski. He understood bobsleds the way a scientist understands an experiment he’s been working on for his entire career.
Holcomb shared his quiet sense of humor too. During the 2014 season, he wore a Superman shirt under his speedsuit and would dramatically and hilariously rip off his speedsuit on the finish deck after a good run. Or sometimes he’d do the Holc-y dance for a reporter if asked (though this lighter side of him seemed mostly reserved for his friends and teammates; in front of reporters, he was more bashful).
But where he showed his true champion side was when things weren’t going well. After the Sochi Olympics, where he had torn his Achilles tendon, he struggled with a quadriceps injury while simultaneously trying to break in new push athletes. The results didn’t come, the one-time champion finishing races far from the podium. Yet he persevered and was always gracious, praising the guys for pushing the sled well off the line and saying how far they had come.
In December, just five months ago, after he finished on the podium in a World Cup for the first time since Sochi, I asked if he still had his Superman shirt. He said yes, it was in his bag. He kept forgetting it was there.
“It’s hard,” he said. “That was such a great season. It’s kind of a good luck charm, but I don’t want to wear it off.”
Maybe just having it in his bag was enough. He finished on the podium five times this season, despite struggling with his hormone levels — a condition that he confessed in a very long email that he took time to write to me mid-season. The medications that he took to treat depression that he battled in the mid-2000s had wreaked havoc on his brain, causing his testosterone levels to drop, he said. In a sport as violent as bobsled, with the need for explosive power, Holcomb was having trouble recovering from injuries (like the torn Achilles and strained quad).
“Injuries are not uncommon in bobsledding, or any sport for that matter,” he wrote. “It happens, I dealt with it, overcame, and moved on the next challenge.”
The fact that he was blindsided by a challenge that he never saw coming — pulmonary congestion — is so unfair. For an athlete with such heart, it’s cruel that his heart is what gave out on him. He had the heart of a champion. But most importantly, he had the heart of a friend. He was a true ambassador not just for bobsled but for all of sport.
The track at PyeongChang next February during the 2018 Olympic Winter Games will seem lonely without him. And so will Lake Placid. Perhaps someone will name a curve after him — a curve that takes patience and insight to describe to the media, and one with just a little bit of a fun wiggle.