Steven Holcomb thought it may have been a sign. Maybe it’s time to pack it up. Find something else to do.
Retire from bobsled.
Holcomb, a 2010 Olympic four-man champion and three-time Olympic medalist driver, lost two of his three push athletes to injuries during recent U.S. national team selection races. He was on the verge of retirement.
Only two men’s sleds are funded by U.S. Bobsled, so any setback in selection races that determine who gets those sleds is crucial.
At age 36, in a sport where Holcomb knows money can be hard to come by, and his last two years plagued by injury, it got the veteran thinking about his future.
“I knew I had a lot of close friends that are retired Olympians, and the most common piece of advice I get is make sure you have something to fall back on, a little bit of financial security when you retire,” Holcomb said in a phone interview last week. “I’m already in debt in this sport. It’s an incredibly expensive sport.”
Holcomb learned push athlete Ryan Bailey, also a 2012 Olympic 100m sprinter, would be unavailable eight days before four-man selection races in Park City, Utah, two weeks ago.
Holcomb had no pool of viable push athletes in Park City from which to choose a replacement, since everybody was already competing in other sleds against Holcomb.
So he called Casey Wickline, a firefighter and national-team push athlete last season who had performed poorly in preseason testing this year and had gone back to his native South Carolina. Wickline agreed to help and was flown in.
Holcomb and push athletes Carlo Valdes, Sam McGuffie and Wickline finished in third place in their four-man selection race on Nov. 2. It was the penultimate selection race.
Codie Bascue had already all but sewn up first place and the first of two funded sleds. To earn that second spot, Holcomb needed to beat fellow Olympian Nick Cunningham in the final selection race Nov. 3.
But Holcomb’s hopes were dealt another blow when McGuffie, a former University of Michigan running back, was ruled out of the last selection race due to a hamstring injury.
Again, Holcomb was scrambling for a replacement, but unlike with Bailey, he had mere hours to find one this time.
Thankfully, former push athlete turned skeleton slider Nic Taylor (husband of two-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor) was in Park City. Taylor would fill McGuffie’s spot in the final race.
With his slapped-together team, Holcomb finished second to Bascue in the last selection race. Cunningham was fourth, putting Holcomb in second place overall and safely into a funded sled.
Now, a healthy Holcomb is preparing for the start of the World Cup season the first weekend of December at the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler, B.C., where he won gold.
The last two seasons have been a struggle for Holcomb — two podiums in 32 World Cup races. His best finish at the 2015 and 2016 World Championships was ninth.
Holcomb earned two bronze medals at the Sochi Olympics despite competing on a partially torn Achilles, which bothered him in the 2014-15 season. Then he tore a quad muscle last December.
“I’m on my way out,” said Holcomb, who stressed that sponsor Under Armour has helped him financially get through non-Olympic years. “I can’t really see myself going for another six years [to the 2022 Olympics]. I’m getting to the point where I’m getting a little old in the sport.”
Holcomb said he will likely compete in his last world championships this season, since there are no worlds in Olympic years. Bobsled and skeleton worlds will be in Sochi in February.
Given Russia’s anti-doping issues, especially at the Sochi Olympics, some skeleton sliders have said they’re considering boycotting worlds.
“We discussed this as a team, we’re up in the air,” Holcomb said. “We don’t know what we’re going to do yet. Safety is a concern. What are the chances I go there, and all of a sudden Russian anti-doping tests me, and I [falsely] test positive? That wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Being outspoken, yeah I’m a little nervous about going there.”Follow @nzaccardi