Where in the USA is Steven Holcomb?
Little did Steven Holcomb know when he climbed out of his Night Train bobsled to celebrate Olympic history that the hard part was far from over.
Since guiding Team USA to its first four-man bobsled gold medal since 1948, the gregarious pilot has spent four months crisscrossing the United States to make the most of an ever-diminishing Q rating. And the iron’s still hot. After traveling more than 46,000 miles, stopping in 16 states and gracing stages, dinner tables, golf courses, race tracks, sound booths and sets, Holcomb was slated to throw the first pitch when the Cleveland Indians hosted the Oakland Athletics on Friday (after The Park Record went to press).
"It’s been unbelievably crazy," the Park City resident said in a phone interview from Colorado Springs on Tuesday night. "I’ve been off the road a grand total of nine days since the Olympics ended."
He isn’t just trying to rack up frequent-flyer miles. The 1997 graduate of the Winter Sports School appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" and the "Today Show" to promote his discipline to a nationwide audience. His travels have taken him to meetings with Barack Obama (a quick handshake from a busy president), Colorado Governor Bill Ritter ("He tried to claim me for Colorado"), Utah Governor Gary Herbert and Senator Orrin Hatch. He also visited the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but he was too busy to ring the bell.
"I’m not much of a politician, but it was really cool to meet a lot of them," Holcomb said, denying any future ambition to hold a public office.
A fan of all kinds of racing (whose team received NASCAR support to build the famous Night Train sled), Holcomb attended a NASCAR race in Atlanta, the NHRA 4-Wide Nationals in North Carolina, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and the Indianapolis 500. Holcomb is also a soccer enthusiast, and Real Salt Lake invited him to help observe its MLS championship before the 2010 home opener.
But that’s just some of the fun stuff. The rare transcendent star in a sport that pays little to elite competitors, Holcomb has also been busy working on behalf of sponsors and delivering motivational speeches. He made multiple promotional trips for Under Armour, Advocare, Microsoft and the Boy Scouts, and gave presentations to the sales team for Facebook in San Francisco and executives from General Mills in Minneapolis.
While he was at ease with the dreaded "50-50" turn he named on the bobsled track in Vancouver, and he has given colorful and candid interviews to international media, Holcomb is slightly less comfortable speaking at a lectern. Still, he’s shown some improvement in recent months.
"I’ve had people who saw me speak in March who say, ‘You seem so much more calm,’" he said. "But by no means am I going to pump up the L.A. Lakers in Game 7."
Holcomb also opened the Utah Summer Games in Cedar City, joined his teammates for the introduction of the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R Class at the New York Auto Show, and was recently on hand for the Cirque du-Soleil-produced unveiling of the Kinect for Xbox 360 at the E3 exposition in Los Angeles. The day of the explosion that caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he was meeting with a CFO from British Petroleum at a Washington, D.C.-area BP gas station.
"He was pretty good about it," Holcomb said. "He kept cool. You could tell something was wrong, but he didn’t make a big stink about it."
Holcomb is not the driver of his own publicity machine. Piloting that craft is agent Brant Feldman, who represents a handful of less prominent winter athletes when he’s not cramming more events into the margins of Holcomb’s daybook.
"I’m fortunate," Feldman said. "I have a client that wants to keep going with this as long as it lasts. We both know that this run will be over."
His client’s lone regret is that commitments have allowed him little time to visit friends and loved ones. Single at age 30, he has rarely been able to see his parents since he began competing in 1998. He did, however, get to accompany his mother while she received the same C3-R eye surgery that resurrected his own career in Los Angeles. Holcomb made a deal with the doctor, Brian Boxer-Wachler, that he would shine some light on his practice if Boxer-Wachler would perform the $8,000 surgery on his mother at no cost.
"For all the support and everything she’s done for me over the years, it’s the least I could do," he said. "This procedure gives people hope. It’s very inspiring."
Holcomb and Boxer-Wachler both will receive honors at the 40th anniversary of the Vision Awards in Beverly Hills this September – Holcomb selected as top athlete and Boxer-Wachler as top doctor. Following his ascent to the upper echelon of bobsled drivers, Holcomb’s degenerative eye condition (later found to be keratoconus, the same disease that afflicts his mother) began to wreak havoc on his vision. He famously began to navigate courses by feel until the 2006 season, after which he retired. It wasn’t until Boxer-Wachler’s C3-R non-invasive surgical procedure – now called the Holcomb C3-R – that he was able to return to the sport.
"To me, it’s just me," he said, asked what his story means to others. "I don’t really see myself as this hero or this guy who did anything special."
He admits that it’s inspiring to have received thousands of e-mails and letters praising his perseverance, particularly those that come from people suffering through similar conditions.
"It blows my mind," he said. "It definitely makes me happy to think of the people I was able to help, because it’s hard. For the seven years I had the disease, I thought life – not literally – but I thought things were going to come to an end."
Clearly, that was far from the case for Holcomb, who recently took a four-day trip to Saint Lucia, did a charity event to promote Advocare in Dallas, and returned to Colorado Springs ahead of Friday’s Major League Baseball appearance. He is "bummed" that his schedule will likely cause him to miss the Fourth of July festivities in Park City, but his presence is still demanded elsewhere, so the tour rolls on.
"Right now, I’m just trying to capitalize on the gold medal," Holcomb said. "I’d just like to make as much money as I can. We don’t make a lot of money and I’m going to need it to get through the next four years."
He fully intends to enter the 2014 Games in Sochi, but his team will look slightly different then. For starters, four-year teammate Steve Mesler announced his retirement at age 31. Holcomb cited former Alpine High School track standout Chris Fogt as a candidate for the 2014 Games after he returns from a Military Intelligence tour in Iraq, but he said U.S. teammate Steve Langton should be given the first opportunity to take Mesler’s spot.
A great deal of science goes into determining the top teams, he said, a fact that many around the country likely overlook. Bobsled, he’s found, still doesn’t get much respect.
"People just don’t understand what it takes to be a bobsledder," Holcomb said. "They look at me and think ‘I can’t do that but I wouldn’t want to do that (anyway).’ They don’t realize we’re real athletes. We’re not just four guys who met in a bar and said ‘Let’s go to the Olympics.’"
Holcomb cringes when he hears stories like that of two Kansas City Royals – Jason Kendall and Willie Bloomquist – who are hoping to compete in bobsled at the 2018 Olympics, after they retire from pro baseball.
"That’s not going to happen," Holcomb said, calling to mind the failure of NHL player Chris Chelios and surfer Laird Hamilton in their bid to represent Greece in bobsled at the 2006 Games. "One said he’s going to be the driver and the other guy will push. It’s not that easy. It takes 15 years to develop most drivers." Bloomquist is already 32 and Kendall is 36. Most Olympic bobsledders are under 30 years old.
Herschel Walker competed at the 1992 Olympics with current U.S. Bobsled men’s coach Brian Shimer, but the former professional football star is the exception, not the rule. Walker was a fifth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, could run 100 meters in 10.22 and owns a Heisman Trophy.
Holcomb said he was miffed when the ESPY Awards failed to include his gold-winning team on its ballot for Team of the Year. The July 14 award show in Los Angeles is one event he likely will not attend.
"I’m kind of disappointed," he said. "I won a gold medal, so how much more can it mean to win an ESPY, but for an Olympic athlete, that kind of recognition for the sport is huge. It seems like it’s the same athletes over and over. I’m not saying they don’t deserve it, but even the nordic combined team didn’t make it. We might have broken a 62-year drought, but they got a medal for the first time ever."
ESPYs aside, plenty awaits Holcomb while the sun still shines on his famous achievement. An exhausted Feldman uttered an obscenity before rattling off his upcoming schedule, which doesn’t slow down much, if any. He’ll return to Park City next week, then he’ll visit Oregon and Philadelphia before heading to Lake Placid, New York, for fellow Olympic medalist Billy Demong’s wedding.
From there, Holcomb is at the whim of his own demand.
Correction: Holcomb never announced his intent to attend the Promontory golf event held on June 28 at the Dye Canyon Course, as The Park Record reported.
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