Less than a minute later, a mere 51.52 seconds to be exact, the foursome from USA 1 bolted out of their seats following a flawless ride on their precious sled Night Train and landed in a party that had been on hold for 62 years. Steven Holcomb, the masterful pilot, ripped off his helmet and waved it like a trophy in the crisp air. Teammate Curt Tomasevicz planted a juicy kiss on Holcomb's bald head. They had just won the United States' first four-man bobsled gold medal since 1948, igniting a raucous celebration that made it feel as if the Whistler mountains were actually shaking.
Holcomb's four-run time was 3 minutes, 24.46 seconds, with Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Tomasevicz pushing him across the finish line. They bested Germany's Andre Lange -- the Michael Jordan of sliding -- who finished 0.38 seconds behind USA 1, his bid to win a gold in six Olympic events thwarted. And they did it with a driver who less than two years ago was legally blind because of an eye disorder called keratoconus, before an innovative surgery that included planting contacts behind Holcomb's iris corrected his vision. But perhaps their most miraculous feat was surviving a course that for days had been chewing up and spitting out the world's best.
"You work so hard to get somewhere and you finally get there and you're kinda like, 'Now what? I don't know what to do,'" Holcomb said, minutes after his extraordinary win Saturday at the Whistler Sliding Centre. "But at the same time, these guys have been training so hard and working so hard for pretty much the last four years, to finally end on a high note like this is huge."
Not many saw this coming when Holcomb, his eyes rapidly deteriorating, learned to adapt by driving the sled more by feel than by sight. He knew his condition was putting his teammates at grave risk -- imagine not being able to focus while cruising at 95 mph through whiplash turns -- and was on the verge of retiring when his coach told him about an experimental procedure that might drastically improve his vision.
"Now everything looks amazing, almost too perfect," Holcomb told me. "But if I didn't have the eye problem I wouldn't know how to drive by feel, and we might not be in this position today."
America's long sliding drought over, Holcomb and his sledmates wrapped each other in the stars and stripes and began hugging anyone who came near. U.S. coach Brian Shimer looked as if he were getting squashed between Holcomb's mighty arms. Then the foursome leaped atop the trackside podium and began what they call the "Holcy Dance," a comical gig Holcomb made up in order to stay relaxed. "Oh, do the Holcy," they sang, paying tribute to the side-stepping, lip-biting dance Holcomb has performed in cities throughout the world. Though Francis Tyler was known for lighting up a cigarette at the end of each bobsleigh run, it's highly doubtful his team partied like this when they won the gold at St. Moritz in 1948, the last time an American team came in first before Saturday.
Caught in the giddy celebratory crush was Geoff Bodine, the 1986 Daytona 500 champion who helped fund the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, the venture that spawned the Night Train sled. Super sleek and covered with a dull black finish, the high-tech sled was modeled on a mostly chrome-less Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In the sledding world, the Night Train has taken on mythical status, akin to Roy Hobbs' 'Wonderboy' bat. Other bobsledders envy the sled's speed, and wonder if the rumors about it being dipped in a special NASA coating might really be true (they're not). On Holcomb's Facebook page, under 'Relationship Status,' he has typed, 'Married to Night Train Bobsled.'
It's that kind of special.
Aboard the legendary sled that carried them to the overall World Cup titles in the 2009-10 season, Team Holcomb obliterated the track record in Friday's two heats, staying upright on a crazy day that featured six crashes, including a nasty spill by Olympic medalist Alexander Zubkov from Russia. The Whistler Sliding Centre might just be the most controversial, reviled venue in Olympic history. It was here that Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed during a training run and died hours before the opening ceremony. Amongst Friday's carnage was American John Napier, who pulled out of the Games with a strained neck that limited his mobility.
Even the great Lange nearly tipped his sled Friday in the perilous corner 13. He made a cool recovery but finished the day in third, a shocking place for the German who was favored to win his third consecutive Olympic four-man bobsleigh gold. Canada 2 driver Pierre Lueders was so angry after his Friday race, he banged his hands on the sled and ripped through the media mixed zone cursing about the "(blank) bull" crashes.
On the top of the snow-kissed hill Saturday, Team Holcomb pondered the 472-foot vertical drop that would be their final race. All they had to do was play it safe, and not destroy the lead carved on Friday. Olsen, the young energetic spark plug from Texas, said, "There really weren't any butterflies because we've been here before. If you try to take into perspective that this is the Olympics, the biggest race of your life, that's where you mess up."
It was the four of them and Night Train, with the notorious curve 13 the only thing that stood in their way of creating Olympic lore. After watching half the sleds crash on corner 13 last year, Holcomb renamed it "50-50." He navigated it cleanly, perfectly, reaching close to 95 mph in curves 11 through 16 to beat Lange's team. For the first time since 1992, Germany did not win gold in the event. Afterward Lange said he plans to retire. Lyndon Rush, the Canadian who had admitted he was so alarmed by the track he might also retire, drove Canada 1 to the bronze.
The final, interminable seconds of the last run were the worst part for Holcomb and his team. "You can't see the clock. You have to make sure the guy's getting the brakes for one, 'cause if you go ripping by off the top, that wouldn't be cool," he said. "But it takes a second. When you hear everybody screaming and yelling it's hard to hear if they're cheering for you or because you got beat by Germany. As soon as I saw my team was holding up the No. 1, it was a huge moment."
It was, said Tomasevicz after he kissed Holcomb's head, "like a dream."
Even the other teams admitted they were in awe of USA 1 and their magical sled. "It's a great thing for the U.S.," Lueders, the Canada 2 driver said. "They've been competitive in bobsled for so long, but have been shut out quite a few times. (Holcomb) definitely is a talent, and I can't wait to see how he's going to do four years from now."