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.”
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