U.S. bobsledders remember Steven Holcomb as Olympic season starts

Getty Images
2 Comments

U.S. bobsledders took their first track walk of the Olympic season on Wednesday morning, following the winding curves in Lake Placid ahead of next week’s national team selection races.

They did so without Steven Holcomb, the quiet leader of the program who died five months ago.

“I know a lot of people are going to struggle getting on ice,” said Katie Eberling, a recently retired bobsled driver who was closer to Holcomb than anybody else on the team. “No one in the sport right now really knows bobsled without him.”

Katie Uhlaender, a three-time Olympic skeleton slider, said she’s competing this season in memory of Holcomb, a triple Olympic medalist whom she called her best friend.

Uhlaender was the first one to find Holcomb on that awful Saturday morning in May.

“I broke into his room because I knew something was wrong,” a tearful Uhlaender said last week. “He hadn’t talked to me in two days, which was weird, so I broke in.”

Holcomb was found dead in his sleep at age 37 inside his room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid.

He had more than the typical dosage of prescription sleeping pills and a blood-alcohol level above the threshold of intoxication in his system, according to a toxicology report.

Nick Cunningham, a two-time Olympic bobsled driver, was Holcomb’s next-door neighbor at the training center. If Holcomb coughed, Cunningham heard it.

Cunningham was in California when he learned of Holcomb’s death.

He and other team members did off-ice training in Calgary in the summer, but Cunningham believed Holcomb’s absence would sink in once they started taking runs down the Lake Placid track.

“The past 10 years in the sport, he’s taken the first trip down the hill,” Cunningham said last week. “I think, what we’re going to do is maybe have a little moment of silence for the first 55 seconds of the day, let the clock run. I think that will be good closure for a lot of athletes.”

Steven Langton was Holcomb’s right-hand man in Sochi, taking bronze medals in the two- and four-man events. It looked like those would be Langton’s final career runs, until he unretired in February.

After Holcomb’s death, Langton was often asked if he was reconsidering coming back now that his pilot was gone.

“I miss him every day,” Langton said. “I think about him every day, but the stuff I’m reminded by is all good stuff. I plan to carry that with me through the season.”

Carlo Valdes, a former UCLA wide receiver, picked up bobsledding after the Sochi Olympics and became a mainstay in Holcomb’s sled over the last three seasons.

Valdes was in the sled for four of Holcomb’s five World Cup podiums last season. No other U.S. driver has made a World Cup podium since December 2014.

Next week, Valdes will push for first-time Olympic hopeful Codie Bascue in the national team selection races.

“A lot of us made our peace, but at the same time it’s going to be a lot different this year,” Valdes said. “All of us had to continue on for [Holcomb], and to win multiple medals for him. It’s just a service to him, especially being on his sled for the past few years, you have to continue on, push on to achieve that goal for him. We had a goal, we wanted to win, and that’s still the goal.”

Valdes and others have considered putting decals on sleds with Holcomb’s initials. Or wearing wristbands. It’s likely that somebody will be driving Holcomb’s two-man sled this season.

Nobody has more tangible reminders than Eberling, who keeps a box of memories in her suburban Chicago home.

The eight Chicago Cubs shirts that Holcomb owned (Holcomb is from Utah, but Eberling is a longtime Cubs fan and they attended games together). Mixed CDs that Holcomb made of songs that made him think of Eberling. The podium flowers from one of Holcomb’s bronze medals in Sochi that he gave her.

Eberling and Holcomb accomplished a childhood dream together — beating Super Mario Bros.

They had long conversations in Target’s patio furniture section. They ordered the same breakfast at Lake Placid’s Chair 6 — the Chair Lift with the French toast substituted for sweet potato pancakes.

Eberling, before speaking at both of Holcomb’s memorial services in Lake Placid and Park City, wrote down every memory, read every message between them and looked at every picture from her six years knowing him.

“One day, I told him I was sad because my favorite scent from Bath & Body Works had been discontinued,” she said in her speech at the services. “He got in touch with someone from the company and surprised me with an entire box of it. He told me he didn’t want me to start smelling bad.”

That was Holcomb’s dry humor. Eberling does not want to forget moments like that.

“I want people to remember Steve as more than an incredible bobsled pilot,” she said.

The night Holcomb was named to his third Olympic team in 2014, he did not celebrate. He chose to stay behind and comfort Eberling, who on that same day was left off of it.

“It’s crazy to have so much I want to tell him,” Eberling said on the phone last week, before pausing to collect her next thought. “The hardest part that I want to sink in is that I’m not going to see him again.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Eberling at peace with bobsled retirement

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
Getty
0 Comments

Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
Getty
0 Comments

MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!