Staying on Track: An Olympic Bobsledder and IT Specialist Tells His Story

by Natalie Hope McDonald | Mar 18, 2014

U.S. Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion Steven Holcomb said the moments before taking to the track in his 2010 Vancouver Olympic bobsled run were very personal.

“Standing on the ice of the bobsled sliding track before the most important run of my life, I welcome fear like a friend,” he wrote in his book, “But Now I See: My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Gold.” “The cheers are like white noise. Every muscle is taut, every nerve is on the edge. This is it.”

U.S. Olympic bobsled team members Steve Langton and Steven Holcomb.

A Record-Breaking Olympian

Holcomb, 34 at the time, was part of the four-man bobsled team that won a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the first U.S. gold in that event since 1948. The year before, he won the 2009 World Championship in Lake Placid, N.Y. — the first American to do so since 1959.

Returning from Sochi, Russia, nursing a calf injury, Holcomb said this year’s games didn’t turn out the way many expected. As journalists and athletes began arriving at the Olympic Village, Twitter erupted with harsh criticism of everything from the living conditions to the drinking water. Competing in his third Olympics and living in Russia for several weeks “took some getting used to,” he said, and counts the experience among his greatest accomplishments.

“Each is different,” he said, “in totally different areas of the world with totally different cultures.”  

In one of the Olympics’ most heated contests, his USA-1 sled placed a mere 0.01 seconds behind third-place Germany on an icy track that included no less than 17 curves and three inclines. He later earned a bronze that broke another 62-year record.

Outside the Olympics

When he’s not immersed in his successful athletic career, Holcomb is a former combat engineer and self-described computer nerd.

“I’ve been a computer geek since I was a little kid and unboxed my first Nintendo,” said Holcomb, who grew up in the winter wonderland of Park City, Utah. Snow sports and tech toys dominated his early years. Before bobsledding he was a skier, and also enrolled in school as a mechanical engineer before becoming interested in computer science.

While simultaneously training for the Olympics, Holcomb worked for several years in IT. He earned his CompTIA A+, CompTIA Security+ and Microsoft certifications, and even worked to maintain the network in the IT division of the U.S. Olympics. But the organization was more interested in Holcomb working on a bobsled than a motherboard.

“Bobsledding became a full-time job,” he said, describing the yearlong training schedule that keeps him in the weight room when it’s not on the track. To balance his life between sport and IT, he enrolled at DeVry University, pursuing a degree in computer information systems. The school has a partnership with the U.S. Olympics, customizing educational programs around rigorous training schedules.

The programming has worked so well that a few years ago DeVry became the official education provider for the U.S. Olympic Committee, offering scholarships and programs for both undergraduate and graduate student athletes who qualify. “Many of these athletes want to pursue their athletic and career dreams at the same time,” said Daniel Hamburger, president and chief executive officer of DeVry. The school offers flexible scheduling “so athletes can balance training and studying in pursuit of their goals,” he said. They can take as many courses during an eight-week session as their training scheduled will allow.

More than 100 athletes are enrolled in the program to date, and 15 of them competed in Sochi this year, according to DeVry’s spokesperson Donna Shaults.

“They’re understanding and flexible,” said Holcomb, who took the first week of classes off this semester to recover from Sochi, make appearances and meet the press. And while bobsledding and computer science may seem like two different worlds, Holcomb has found a way to reconcile both.

“There’s a crossover between sports and IT,” he said. “Just because you lose, losing is not a loss. It’s a small victory. You can learn what works and what didn’t work — and then work on that.”

Athletes take chances, just like startups, like the time his team made changes to their sled — the infamous Night Train, a black bullet with U.S.A.-1 painted on its nose — in hopes of making it faster. “One time we made it slower and we ended up crashing,” he said. “So we take that knowledge and apply it to what we do. That happens all the time in so many aspects of life. We can take what we learned and go forward.”

For Holcomb, this high-speed trajectory means graduating from DeVry as early as 2016 while he continues Olympic training.

An Open Book

On a personal level, Holcomb’s faced challenges off the track that may make high-stakes bobsledding seem like child’s play — experiences that may have even ended most other Olympic careers. Before the start of the 2008 season, he was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative thinning of the cornea that distorts vision. As his sight was deteriorating, he told no one, not his coaches, his teammates, his friends or family. Holcomb’s vision, just 20/500 at its worst, made it difficult to even see from the locker room to the bobsled track. Facing what could have been permanent blindness, he placed his hopes in a new procedure combining light therapy, vitamins and lens implants. The procedure is now called the Holcomb C3-R, in his honor.

“I’ve been at the lowest of lows and the highest of highs,” said Holcomb, who at his worst still managed to control a bobsled moving upwards of 80 miles per hour, even though he could barely read the speed limit sign on his own street. 

His vision problems were just the tip of the iceberg. In 2007, alone in a hotel room, struggling with depression and near blindness, Holcomb attempted suicide by washing down more than 70 pills with Jack Daniel’s. Looking back, he said, “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”

Those dark times and his rise from them inspired both the book and his intensity for life on and off the bobsled track. Listening to Holcomb, one gets the sense he realized he’s been given a second chance; and it’s a realization he doesn’t take lightly.

“People think I’m this tough guy in all aspects,” he said, “mentally and physically. But when it comes to the emotional, no one is that tough.”

In fact, people who had known the former National Guardsman, who by all accounts has a wicked sense of humor, were surprised to find out that he silently suffered from depression for so many years. “It was something between me and God,” Holcomb said. But when a close friend and fellow athlete committed suicide, his outlook changed. “I realized that this was much bigger than people realize,” he said. “I needed to tell my story.”

Through the book, he’s become an unlikely spokesperson for those with depression, a job he takes seriously, even if it means erasing boundaries between his public and private life.

“My life’s an open book,” he recently told a reporter for The Boston Globe. The upside: the opportunity to educate people about depression and inspire through his sporting triumphs. The downside, if there is one, is the fame that can accompany this new role. “It’s a little interesting,” he said, “having people you don’t know, know everything about you.”

Natalie Hope McDonald is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. 

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