Late USA driver in two-man and four-man bobsleigh teams upgraded from bronze at Sochi 2014 after disqualification of Russian medallists
Two and a half years after his untimely death, the family of bobsleigh driver Steven Holcomb will receive two silver medals from Sochi 2014.
Holcomb piloted the USA two-man and four-man bob teams which finished third at the Games.
But they were promoted to silver in both events after Alexandr Zubkov, the driver of Russia’s original four-man and two-man gold medal sleds, was disqualified for doping offences with brakeman Alexey Voevoda also subsequently excluded.
Holcomb, who led his country to its first four-man title in 62 years at Vancouver 2010, died in his sleep at the Olympic training centre in Lake Placid in May 2017 aged 37.
Steven Langton, brakeman in the two-man and a pusher in the four-man, are also set to receive two silver medals at Tuesday’s Team USA Awards in Los Angeles with pushers Chris Fogt and Curt Tomasevicz collecting four-man silvers.
USA’s greatest bobsledder of his generation
A native of Park City, Utah, Holcomb started out as a ski racer before switching to sliding in his late teens.
He was originally a pusher and was part of Brian Shimer’s team ahead of the 2002 Games in his hometown of Salt Lake City before a hamstring injury at the worst time saw him replaced by Dan Steele.
Holcomb then switched to driving but there was a problem – his eyesight.
After laser surgery in 2000 had failed to make a difference, he was diagnosed with the incurable degenerative eye disease keratoconus which leads to the thinning of the cornea.
Deciding not to tell anyone, Holcomb wore hard contact lenses and ahead of Turin 2006 found that his sight was getting progressively worse to the point that he thought he could go blind.
In his autobiography, ‘But Now I See: My Journey From Blindness to Olympic Gold’, Holcomb admitted he should have said something sooner but that “because the only lengthy conversations I’d had about my disease had been with myself, I always came up with the most horrific scenarios for what would happen if I confessed now”.
Having managed to pass a vision test for international competition by memorising the letters on the eye chart, he took sixth place in the four-man bob and 14th in the two-man in his first Olympic Games.
But his eyesight soon deteriorated to the point that contact lenses were not up to the task making cornea transplants in both eyes, and four years out of the bob, the only feasible course of action.
Faced with that prospect, Holcomb’s already fragile mental health worsened and he attempted suicide by taking multiple sleeping pills washed down with bourbon whiskey.
Incredibly, he survived and decided to come clean about his sight issues.
His team-mates and coaches set to work and put him in touch with Calfornia doctor Brian Boxer Wachler who fitted special implants in 2008 which improved his vision markedly without surgery.
The procedure soon became known as the Holcomb C3-R.
Holcomb was able to return to the circuit and became world champion a year later at Lake Placid before securing his greatest triumph at the Vancouver Games of 2010, piloting the ‘Night Train’ – with pushers Tomasevicz, Justin Olsen and Steve Mesler – to gold.
Popular with his team-mates and bobsleigh crowds for his outgoing manner, and his ‘Holcy Shuffle’ dance, Holcomb built on his Olympic title with three golds at the 2012 Lake Placid World Championships – two-man, four-man and mixed team.
USA retained that mixed team title a year later before Holcomb headed to Sochi for his third Games.
Bronze medals in both the four-man and two-man saw Holcomb join Pat Martin as his nation’s most decorated Olympic bobsledder.
The next couple of seasons were not quite as successful, although Holcomb was ranked second in the 2016-17 two-man World Cup standings thanks in part to a victory over Canada’s subsequent PyeongChang 2018 two-man gold medallist Justin Kripps at Lake Placid.
He was still on course to pilot a Team USA sled at PyeongChang but in May 2017 his best friend, world champion skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, broke into his room at the training centre in Lake Placid having not heard from him for two days and discovered his body.
Holcomb was later found to have alcohol and prescription sleeping tablets in his system having appeared to have passed away in his sleep.
His 60 World Cup, 10 World Championship and three Olympic medals made him one of the most decorated drivers in the sport’s history.
Medal reallocation from Sochi 2014
Six months after Holcomb’s death, Zubkov was stripped of his medals from Sochi 2014 for doping offences.
And in March this year, following the application of the Olympic Medal Reallocation Principles, the teams below Russia were promoted with Holcomb’s two-man and four-man teams upgraded to silver.
Langton, Tomasevicz and Fogt released a statement at the time saying, “It’s unfortunate that our results were not official in February of 2014 and that we’ve had to endure the long process to see justice finally served.
“We are happy that we now can celebrate and be proud of the silver medal accomplishments.”
Latvia’s four-man team, piloted by Oskars Melbardis, were upgraded to the nation’s first ever Winter Olympic gold medal with John Jackson’s Great Britain sled promoted from fifth to third with Russia 2 also disqualified for doping having been originally fourth.
Jackson said, “Disappointingly, it is a medal we should have received on an Olympic podium in 2014. Cheats have cost us that moment, along with other nations too.”
In the two-man, Switzerland’s Beat Hefti and Alex Baumann were awarded gold with Melbardis and Daumants Dreiskens taking bronze after Russia 2 were also excluded for doping.
U.S. bobsledder Steven Holcomb is getting one last victory celebration.
A long overdue one.
More than 2 1/2 years after his death — and almost six years removed from the bobsled races in question — Holcomb and his team are about to finally be presented the silver medals that they should have received at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Holcomb and teammates Steven Langton, Chris Fogt and Curt Tomasevicz were originally awarded bronze medals, which were eventually upgraded after a long probe of the Russian doping scandal that now overshadows those games.
The medal reallocation will take place at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles. Langton, Fogt and Tomasevicz are all expected to attend, as is longtime U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer and other top American sliding officials. Holcomb, who was 37 when he died in his sleep at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York in May 2017, will be represented by his family.
“I think the word that comes to mind most quickly is bittersweet,” said Jean Schaefer, Holcomb’s mother. “It’s certainly a great honor for Steven and I’m so very, very proud of him — as I have been so very proud of him his whole life. But there’s also a great sadness that he’s not here to enjoy the fruits of his efforts and to celebrate with his team.”
It took years to get to this point: Russia, which won the two- and four-man bobsled races at the 2014 Games on its home ice, was stripped of those titles in November 2017 after the long investigation into the state-sponsored doping program at that Olympics.
But it took the International Olympic Committee until this past March to formally reallocate the medals. Latvia was upgraded to gold in four-man, with Britain moving up to bronze. In two-man, Switzerland eventually was elevated to gold, with Latvia up to bronze.
The U.S., which left Sochi with bronzes from both races, is now recognized as the silver medalist in both. Holcomb and Langton were in the two-man sled; Holcomb drove Langton, Fogt and Tomasevicz in the four-man race.
“Holcomb made such an impact on so many people’s lives,” said Kaillie Humphries, the longtime Canadian bobsledder and two-time Olympic women’s champion who is now competing for the U.S. “He was the best.”
Holcomb, who had prescription sleeping pills and alcohol in his system on the night that he died and was so depressed by failing eyesight in 2007 that he attempted suicide, was by far the best bobsledder in the U.S. program — perhaps ever. He was a winner of at least 60 World Cup medals, more than a dozen World Cup championship trophies and the various awards from his career are scattered about the homes of his relatives.
His mother’s intention for the silver medals is that they be donated to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee archives. The USOPC was in possession of Holcomb’s bronze medals, as a gift from his family, when they had to be surrendered to the IOC in order to receive the new silvers.
“Steven once told me that his medals weren’t just medals for him or his team,” Schaefer said. “They were medals for his country. They represented America and he was very proud of that and I think he would be very proud to know that his medals reside where people can see them and enjoy them.”
Holcomb would have been a lock for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team as well, where he could have added to his medal haul — he drove the U.S. to gold in the four-man race at the 2010 Vancouver Games, ending a 62-year drought for the Americans in bobsledding’s signature race.
His mother went to Pyeongchang last year instead, representing her son and his memory. The grieving process is not over, though Tuesday’s event is certain to bring back happy thoughts as well.
“I’m as OK as I can be,” Schaefer said. “I don’t know if a parent ever gets over the loss of a child, because it’s certainly not the natural order of things. And I have to say that the support of his teammates and the Olympic family is incredible. Just incredible. You feel the love all the time.”
She will feel it again Tuesday, one more time.