The top American bobsled driven by Steve Holcomb enters the four-man Olympic competition on February 26 in an unprecedented position. Before this year, an American four-man sled never entered an Olympic competition as the reigning world champion. And never before has an American claimed the four-man World Cup title with such comfort -- a 261-point margin -- the same year as an Olympic games.
U.S. men have not won Olympic bobsled gold since 1948. With Holcomb as a favorite, there's a fair chance that could change this weekend.
For a time, American bobsledders ruled the bobsled world. They won 13 medals, including five gold, in six Olympic games from 1928 to 1956. But the competitive landscape changed by the 1970s after European nations recruited top power and speed athletes to train year round and bolster their sleds with stronger pushers.
The Americans caught on to the concept in 1980, when 1968 Olympics 110-meter hurdles champion Willie Davenport was a pusher on a four-man team that finished 12th at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
In 1984, former collegiate All-American decathlete and football player John Philbin joined Tony Carlino's top-ranked U.S. four-man team, but the team crashed at the Olympic trials and did not compete at the Sarajevo Games.
Philbin tried the sport after he took a job as the strength and conditioning coach at the Winter Olympic training center in Lake Placid. By the time Philbin became the head coach of the U.S. team in 1991, he helped revise the testing system used to recruit bobsled athletes.
Perhaps his most high profile recruit was former NFL star running back Herschel Walker, who finished seventh on the two-man team at the 1992 Albertville Games. Other high profile athletes who tried the sport include Willie Gault, a world-class hurdler and a Super Bowl winning wide receiver who failed to make the final cut at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Former Olympic 400-meter hurdles champion Edwin Moses also failed to become a bobsled Olympian.
Another of Philbin's recruits is Mike Kohn, a former high school track and field and football star who won a bronze medal with the U.S. four-man team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Kohn is the driver of the USA 3 sled in Vancouver.
Todd Hays, who won silver in the four-man in Salt Lake City, was a linebacker at the University of Tulsa and a professional kick boxer. Two of his pushers at the 2002 games, Garret Hines and Randal Jones, both competed in football and track and field in college.
Holcomb was an alpine skier for about 10 years before he switched to bobsled. An informational meeting he attended to learn about the sport took place, appropriately, at a bar.
Bobsled and bars are bound by a rich history. About a quarter century ago, the bulbous bellies of some U.S. bobsledders who showcased a fondness for beer belied their brave commitment to the sport. Today's U.S. bobsledders are more physically fit, less focused on fraternal frolics and more accomplished.
Steven Vassar, the assistant to the director at the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Museum in Lake Placid, understands the evolution of the U.S. bobsledder. He's lived in Lake Placid, N.Y., the birthplace of North American bobsledding, his entire life. His grandfather and father were bobsledders and he tried the sport himself as an amateur. He says he was "brought up" on Mt. Hoevenberg, the hill in Lake Placid that houses the bobsled venue.
"Today, they're athletes," he said during a phone call. "Back then, they weren't. They went from a bunch of big, fat guys in the sleds who would see who could get down the fastest to a bunch of athletes trying to get down the hill the fastest."
Today, U.S. bobsledders are full-time athletes who, compared to their predecessors, struggle less to fulfill their Olympic dreams and more frequently show proficiency in the sport.
The top American driver in the 1980s was Brent Rushlaw, whose personal adventures at times overshadowed his bobsled accomplishments. A Sports Illustrated Magazine article published in 1984 told about Rushlaw's suspension from the U.S. team in 1982 for excessive drinking during a European trip following a bad stint of performances while using a borrowed sled. It also tells of a 350-miles drive from his hometown of Saranac Lake near Lake Placid to Long Island, N.Y. in a car with no brakes.
"We went through all the red lights," Rushlaw said in the story. "Toughest part was the toll booths."
Rushlaw competed in four Winter Games, with a best fourth place finish in the four-man at the 1988 Calgary Games. He missed a medal by .02 seconds when the last sled down the track, Soviet Union 2, pushed him off the podium for the bronze medal.
Rushlaw, a three-sport athlete in high school, proved that not all bobsledders during his era were couch slouches.
"He was an unbelievable pilot," said Don Krone, a communications specialist with FIBT, the sport's international governing body, who also worked for the Olympic Regional Development Authority in Lake Placid in the 1980s and 1990s. "He was always a great athlete. A good bobsled pilot has good hand eye coordination. He understood how to drive a sled."
During Rushlaw's rowdy days, bobsledding attracted a close group of beer-swilling buddies, many of whom lived in the Lake Placid region because that was the location of the only refrigerated bobsled track in North America. Many were members of bobsled clubs from the surrounding areas.
"At the end of the day they went out and had a few beers," said Krone. "That was part of the bobsled persona. Now, they get together mostly after competitions."
A popular bobsled gathering spot in Lake Placid in the 1980s was Casey's Pub owned by Carlino, the team's head coach from 1988 to 1991.
"We were a little bit more free than the current athletes," Carlino said by phone from Vancouver, where he serves on the men's bobsled jury at the Olympics. "We had a lot of fun. I hope that these kids are enjoying the company of their European counterparts and not getting so caught up in the hundredths of a second it takes to win a race."
On February 26 and 27, Holcomb, 29, will focus on minuscule moments that separate bobsled glory and mediocrity. A gold medal victory will create fun times for U.S. bobsledders, even it they're more tempered than in the past.
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