By Tim Hipps, U.S. Army Installation Management CommandFebruary 21, 2014
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (Feb. 21, 2014) -- Despite being the reigning Olympic four-man bobsled champion, former U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program driver Steven Holcomb and his "Night Train 2" crew face an uphill climb to reach the medal podium this weekend.
Then again, two sleds filled with WCAP Soldiers conceivably could win medals in the event. Ah, the beauty of sports, nowhere better illustrated than at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Holcomb struck bronze earlier this week in the two-man event and returns at three-quarters speed to defend his Olympic four-man crown. He is joined by WCAP brakeman Capt. Chris Fogt, who spent a year deployed to Iraq since competing in USA-2 at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. They are joined aboard USA-1 by civilians Curt Tomasevicz, who helped Holcomb strike gold in Canada, and Steve Langton, who teammates refer to as the hardest-working bobsledder in the United States.
That might not be enough, however, to push them over the proverbial hump at Sanki Sliding Centre. It's almost as if they will be pushing a bobsled uphill, rather than down an ice-covered mountain.
Standing foremost in their path is bobsleigh veteran Alexander Zubkov, pilot of Russia-1. He struck silver at the 2013, 2008 and 2005 World Championships, and bronze in 2003, along with gold at the 2009 and 2005 European Championships. He is competing in his fourth Olympic Winter Games at Sochi 2014 -- where he already struck gold in the two-man bobsled event -- and this could be his last Olympics because he turns 40 in August. To win a medal in front of his home crowd would be a fitting finale to an illustrious career.
Holcomb says he and Zubkov share mutual respect for one another and know each other almost too well to be competitors at this level.
"We're friends and good rivals, but there's a bit of a language barrier," Holcomb said. "I live with the guy for six months of the year. It would be miserable if we hated each other."
The Russians also have a distinct home-track advantage against the rest of the 30-sled field.
"Our goal when I came here was to have at least 4.5 to five time the advantage in runs than anybody else," Team Russia bobsled coach Pierre Lueders said. "So if, on average, others made about 50 runs, we are getting 200."
Germany-1 is driven by 2013 World champion Maximilian Arndt, while Thomas Florschuetz, who placed fourth at the Vancouver Games and won bronze at the 2013 European Championships, will pilot Germany-2.
Switzerland's Beat Hefti steered his crew to gold at the 2014 European Championships, a title he also won in 2006, and finished second in 2013. He teamed with Alex Baumann earlier this week to finish second in the two-man event, ahead of the Team USA bronze medalist duo of Holcomb-Langton.
Holcomb sustained a calf muscle injury earlier this week and sat in the sled while teammates pushed USA-1 off the starting block for their first two of six Olympic training heats. They progressively got faster during the next two days as Holcomb nursed his leg toward competitive shape.
"I'm at about 75 percent," Holcomb said Friday after posting the fourth (56.01) and sixth-fastest (56.28) training runs of the day. "I am maximizing my treatments. I'm not going to try and hurt myself again. Come race time, that's when I need to be ready to go."
Holcomb, who spent seven years training in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and can become only the fourth pilot to successfully defend his title in the bobsleigh four-man event, is not concerned about defending his Olympic crown.
"It takes a lot of the pressure off," Holcomb said. "We've been there, done that. I didn't win a medal until year six or seven of my driving career. We know what it takes to win."
Tomasevicz seconded that sentiment.
"Everything has been spot on for us," he said. "We don't want to get too pumped up, so we're trying to keep it a little low key, but we are taking things seriously and trying to relax at the same time."
WCAP driver Sgt. Nick Cunningham's Soldier-laden USA-2 crew of WCAP Sgts. Justin Olsen and Dallas Robinson, along with civilian Johnny Quinn, was well off the pace of medal contenders during Friday's training session, posting the 15th (56.57) and 19th-fastest (56.71) times.
"It just comes down to each of us," Cunningham said. "We're going to do what we do best. I like this track only if I'm speeding up."
The bobsled track at Sanki Sliding Center starts 837 meters above sea level and finishes at 711.5 meters above sea level. The 1,500-meter course, which features 17 curves, is considered the longest and safest in the world, with three ascent sections and high-banking boards that actually slow sleds.
"Park City [Utah] is more my style," said Cunningham, who rides bulls for kicks. "Me and this track here in Russia have more of a love-hate relationship."
Love it or hate it, Sanki Sliding Center is set for two scintillating days of four-man bobsled competition. Heats 1 and 2 are set for Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Sochi time. Heats 3 and 4 will begin at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the final day of competition in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Check local broadcast schedules for viewing times.