KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The first thing Steven Holcomb noticed when he crossed the finish line Monday night was that the Russian fans were wildly cheering.
Not a good sign, the USA-1 pilot figured.
The next second felt like forever. Had he medaled? Had he blown it? He had no idea. But as his sled slowed to a stop, friendly, joyous faces — people clad in red, white and blue — came into view.
“I saw the flood of Americans coming up and over the wall,” Holcomb said, “and that’s when I knew.”
Victory was not his. But he’d ended another 62-year drought for U.S. bobsledding, and that was more than enough. Holcomb and Steve Langton won the bronze medal in two-man bobsledding at the Sochi Games, the first Olympic medal by an American sled in the event since 1952.
By now, 62 must be Holcomb’s favorite number. His four-man gold medal at the Vancouver Games also snapped a 62-year U.S. drought in that race.
“If there’s anybody who needs a 62-year drought broken, give me a call and I’ll try to help you out,” Holcomb said.
Russia’s Alexander Zubkov and Alexey Voevoda won the gold in a dominant home-ice show, beating the Swiss team of Beat Hefti and Alex Baumann by 0.66 seconds. Holcomb, of Park City, Utah, and Langton, of Melrose, Mass., were another 0.22 seconds back, finishing just 0.03 seconds ahead of another Russian sled in the race for bronze.
“Man, thank God,” said Holcomb, who raced through a strained left calf that required treatment Sunday and Monday. “There was a lot of pressure on me there.”
Holcomb needed 45 minutes of treatment after racing Sunday night before he could emerge for interviews, and it was clear the team was worried about his leg. Langton said he and Holcomb didn’t even discuss the injury on Monday. Langton just knew Holcomb was going to show up and do his job, one way or another.
“Best driver in the world,” Langton said, pointing across a room toward Holcomb. “The best. That guy.”
Zubkov had the home-ice edge. Hefti has long been one of the best two-man drivers. And for quite some time, Holcomb has been fighting to dispel the notion that he’s only truly elite when racing on the North American tracks he knows best.
He debunked that theory Monday. An Olympics, in Russia, in conditions in which he’s never trained, facing a 62-year drought — and he delivered.
Great U.S. drivers such as Brian Shimer and Todd Hays tried in recent years to be the streak-busters, coming close but never getting over the final hump. So maybe it was fitting that one of the first people Holcomb embraced when that mob of love reached his sled was Shimer, who simply beamed.
“Holcy’s the man,” USA-2 pilot Cory Butner said, “and he proved it again.”
Germany, which had won the last three gold medals in two-man, had its top sled finish eighth in the worst showing for the sliding power in the event since 1956.
“If in 2010 we were sitting in a Formula One car, then this time we were sitting a trabby,” brakeman Kevin Kuske said, referring to one of the least-popular cars ever sold in Germany. “It’s definitely an equipment issue.”
That used to be the case for the Americans. Not anymore.
Holcomb and Langton gave the U.S. its fourth sliding medal so far at the Sochi Games, a total that beats the three the Americans combined to win in Turin in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010. With women’s bobsled and four-man bobsled still to run, and the Americans expected to vie for golds in both, the U.S. has to be thinking their total will grow before the Sochi cauldron is extinguished.
“What Holcomb has done is unbelievable for the sport,” USA-3 pilot Nick Cunningham said. “He’s put USA Bobsled on the international map.”
And on the Olympic medal stand. Again.
“It means a lot,” Holcomb said. “I have an Olympic gold in four-man, world championship in four-man, world championship in two-man. The one elusive medal was this one. We wanted gold, it didn’t happen … but I’m happy. Gold, silver, bronze, going home Olympic medalists. That was our goal. I’m losing my mind right now. This is amazing.”