The sympathy cards came from places like Germany and Italy, where Steven Holcomb was their bobsled enemy. Mourners flew in from all across the country. Generations of Olympians packed a ballroom, sharing in grief.
They wept. They hugged. They laughed.
“Steven Holcomb was like no one else,” Olympic teammate Steven Langton said. “He was one of the finest to wear the red, white and blue.”
Sentiments like those came for hours Thursday in the tiny Olympic town of Lake Placid, N.Y., when friends and family gathered to celebrate the life of America’s most successful bobsled driver. The 37-year-old Holcomb was found dead in his sleep Saturday at the Olympic Training Center, the dorm where not only many of his teammates live but where the offices for USA Bobsled and Skeleton are housed.
“Steve was, and always will be, our champion,” said Tony Carlino, who manages the Mount Van Hoevenberg track where Holcomb dominated.
The celebration of Holcomb’s life was supposed to last an hour.
That proved impossible. Put simply, there was much to celebrate — including the 2010 Olympic four-man gold medal, which ended a 62-year drought for the U.S. in bobsled’s signature race, and a pair of bronze medals from the 2014 Sochi Games.
“I have no words to describe my sadness,” said International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation President Ivo Ferriani, who called Holcomb a brother in a recorded message. “The sadness is indescribable. We need to remember Stevie for what he gave to us all. … Stevie, you will stay always with us. I will never forget you, my friend.”
For the public memorial, hundreds of people packed a ballroom at a conference center attached to the same building where Lake Placid’s signature moment — the “Miracle on Ice” from the 1980 Winter Olympics — happened. Photos of Holcomb played on a loop on the electronic message board outside the arena. Local police officers shooed people away from nearby parking meters near the building, saying no one needed to worry about such things on this day.
“Steve’s one of the most passionate, humble souls I’ve ever known,” said a teary USA Bobsled head coach Brian Shimer, who considered Holcomb the younger brother he never had. “He looked you in the eyes. He engaged you. And he did that with every person who was drawn to him by his charm … and by his greatness.”
The public ceremony was preceded by a private, intimate one for family, teammates and close friends atop the track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, not far from the start line and overlooking the magnificent Adirondack Mountains in the distance. His sleds were displayed on either side of the medal podium, the same one he stood atop of plenty of times in his career.
The U.S. flag — the colors he wore as an Eagle Scout, as a member of the Utah Army National Guard, and as a bobsledder — was at half-staff, rippling in the crisp breeze. Speakers read passages from Winnie The Pooh, from Dr. Seuss, from the Bible. They told stories of how he was the ultimate teammate. They told stories of how he was the ultimate jokester.
His mother, Jean Anne, wore Holcomb’s gold medal from the Vancouver Games. His father, Steve, wore one of the bronze medals from the Sochi Games. His sisters both spoke, one of them wearing his other Olympic bronze from Sochi. Many teammates wore or carried “Superman” shirts, like Holcomb used to wear under his speed suit on race days.
“He was a boy when he came here,” said Holcomb’s father, also named Steve, who thanked Lake Placid for playing such a role in his son’s life. “And he was a man when he left.”
USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele has lost count of how many times in recent days he’s been asked about how the team will go on — especially with the Pyeongchang Winter Games looming in nine months — without Holcomb.
He doesn’t have an answer laden with specifics yet.
“As tough as it is, we have to,” Steele said, as he struggled to get the words out. “We have to continue his legacy and continue the work that he worked so hard to start. We owe it to him. We will push forward. We will find success again. He’s not the pillar of the organization any longer, but we are where we are because of Steven Holcomb.”
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