Here’s how far Steven Holcomb and the U.S. bobsledding team have come in recent years: Winning a medal at the world championships, especially in Germany, would ordinarily have sparked nothing short of a giant celebration for the Americans.
On Sunday, it was met with more than a tinge of disappointment.
Americans no longer reign as the dominant force in four-man bobsledding, with Holcomb’s two-year stay atop the world coming to an end by winning the bronze medal at the world championships in Konigssee, Germany — the competition ending on the anniversary of his historic victory at the Vancouver Games.
“When you know that you can be No. 1, when you’re not, it hurts,” Holcomb, the 2009 world champion, said in an interview from Germany after the race. “I know I can be better. I know I can win this. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, that’s the caliber of athletes that we’re competing against. We’re all fighting for this.”
Holcomb was only beaten in the two-day, four-run competition by a pair of German sleds, as the host nation — and sliding powerhouse — capitalized on home-ice advantage. Manuel Machata finished his breakthrough rookie season by adding the world title to his overall World Cup crown, and Germany-2 pilot Karl Angerer was second.
Holcomb and his team of Justin Olsen, Curt Tomasevicz and Steve Langton were 0.68 seconds back of Machata’s time.
“My hat’s off to him. He did a great job,” Holcomb said. “I didn’t drive like a world champion this weekend. That’s my fault. But we were right there. We were in the hunt. My pushers, man, they were the reason we were so fast. They were No. 1 at the start all four heats and they definitely showed world champion right there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up on the driving side of it.”
Holcomb’s post-Olympic season lacked the same magic as his journey to bobsledding gold at the Vancouver Games.
The embarrassment of a DUI arrest, an early season leg injury and some tension within his team were all part of a trying season for Holcomb. He’ll complete some community service in Utah this spring as part of his sentence on the DUI charge, and there’s still some question about if he’ll be allowed to travel to Canada — which has tough laws for drunken-driving offenders — for races next season.
The fallout from it all stung Holcomb deeply.
“It stunk about as much as something can stink,” Holcomb said. “But I’m doing what I have to do. People on my team are still counting on me. I can’t let it set me back too much. It’s a thing of the past, it’s something that I’ve learned from, I’ve built on and I have to become a better person for what happened. I think that I have. We all make mistakes and I definitely did.”
USA-1 had some turnover after last season, when Holcomb, Olsen, Tomasevicz and Steve Mesler delivered the first four-man Olympic gold to America since 1948 with a dominating performance at the Whistler Sliding Center. Mesler retired after that race, and Langton took his place.
More turnover is likely coming. Olsen plans to make a run at being a driver, so Holcomb will almost certainly have a new teammate for the 2011-12 season — one he’s already looking forward to, since the next world championships are on American ice in Lake Placid, N.Y. next February.
Holcomb still believes the “Night Train” is still the world’s fastest sled, and that the U.S. will be back atop the podium again. And yes, he’s already plotting ways to defend his Olympic gold at Sochi, Russia in 2014.
“No doubt,” Holcomb said. “It’s going to take time with a new team, but they know what’s at stake here. We can’t mess around.”