Holcomb looks to end 62-year US gold drought | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Holcomb looks to end 62-year US gold drought

The way Steven Holcomb sees it, he has everything needed to win an Olympic four-man bobsled gold medal.

A trio of sled pushers that are more like brothers than teammates, plus a high-tech, meticulously designed sled with an intimidating black coat of paint and catchy name – the “Night Train.” And if inspiration is ever needed, Holcomb need only take a look at those newly delivered, diamond-crusted rings commemorating his team’s run to the 2009 world championship.

“Right now,” Holcomb says, with no reluctance, “we are the team to beat.”

It’s been 62 years since a U.S. men’s bobsled driver could accurately make that claim.

Not since 1948 has an American four-man sled gone to the Olympics and brought home the gold. That’s the mission Holcomb and his three push athletes – Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz – will tackle at the Vancouver Games, even though history will favor German star Andre Lange and the expected raucous crowds will back Canadians such as Pierre Lueders and Lyndon Rush.

No matter.

World Cups are nice, but Holcomb knows only Olympic gold will validate the “Night Train” as the world’s best bobsled.

“Being the world champion, it definitely helps,” Holcomb said. “Going into ’06, right after the Olympics, I’d never won a World Cup medal. You always believe you can. You’re always like, ‘I can do it, I can do it.’ But until you actually get that medal and you have proof that you actually can do it … it’s like a hurdle to get over and after that you’re medaling, medaling, medaling. So it will help us.”

He’ll need that help at the Whistler Sliding Center, because this won’t be easy.

Germans are always a force in sliding, and Lange is the unquestioned gem of their men’s team. The four-man gold medal driver in 2002 and 2006, plus the two-man Olympic champion at the Turin Games four years ago, Lange already has shown that he thrives when the spotlights are brightest.

An added bonus for Lange – some unplanned rest. He left the World Cup circuit in November to let some leg injuries heal, and by January was back in his customary spot on medal podiums.

“We wanted to find a new way, make a new plan, get better and come back strong,” Lange said through a translator.

So Lange is back, looking for gold No. 4.

Shauna Rohbock would happily take gold No. 1.

The women’s bobsledding silver medalist in 2006, Rohbock – a former push athlete – is a legitimate gold-medal hopeful again in 2010, especially after winning the World Cup race at Whistler last February. She missed victory at the Turin Games by 0.71 seconds in a four-run competition, but said that hasn’t been a haunting force in the four years that followed.

“I just look at every year as a new year,” Rohbock said. “After the Olympic season, I had a silver medal. The next season I had a bronze medal at world championships. Every year’s a new year. I don’t look and think ‘I was so close.’ It’s something that drives me, the feeling I had on that medal stand. The feeling I had then, that’s enough to want to be there again.”

Germany’s Sandra Kiriasis, who denied Rohbock that gold in Turin, looms as one of the biggest challenges for her in 2010 as well. Even though Rohbock won at Whistler in 2009, the high-speed, technically demanding track suits Kiriasis just fine.

“I like,” Kiriasis said. “It’s so fast. Crazy.”

Canadians also will be a factor in the women’s race on their home track, with Helen Upperton and Kaillie Humphries – a former push athlete who missed the Turin Games because of right ankle injury suffered when she tripped on a garden hose – having been among the most consistent drivers all season.

But the American women have depth as well, with Erin Pac and Bree Schaaf picking perfect times for breakthrough seasons.

“We’re not just here to slide,” Pac said. “From the very beginning, making the Olympic team was the goal. There’s pressure, but this is what I want to be doing, and I’ve learned a lot from Shauna over the past four years.”

Speaking of learning curves, meet John Napier.

A newcomer on the Olympic stage, but someone who’s been driving sleds since he was 8, Napier started the season thinking he’d rate a shot of being the third U.S. men’s driver in the Vancouver field, behind Holcomb and Todd Hays.

But Napier’s season got off to a flying start, giving him the role of USA-2 behind Holcomb, and he’s been a mainstay in the top five of the World Cup rankings most of the season. So even though Hays’ Olympic hopes are done – a training crash in Germany led to a brain injury and prompted his retirement – the American men believe they have a legitimate 1-2 punch in both two- and four-man events.

And Holcomb would love nothing more to end that 62-year drought.

“This is what the last four years are coming down to,” Holcomb said.

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