Steven Holcomb on his suicide attempt (cont.)
Holcomb tried, but felt increasingly isolated and guilty. One night, after attending a sponsor event, he swallowed a bottle of 73 pills and washed them down with Jack Daniel's, figuring he would end his misery and simply never wake up. He slept for 12 hours and was stunned to find himself alive. Yet again, another stroke of luck.
"I wasn't upset," he recalls. "It was more, like, what did I just do? Why did I do that? Why it hadn't worked, I didn't know. It was a miracle. It was a second chance. I needed to seize every moment I had to do something in life. There must be something else left to accomplish in life."
At that point Shimer was then coaching the team and tried to snap Holcomb out of his funk one day, but Holcomb snapped. "I have bigger fish to fry," Holcomb said.
"Why, what be bigger than training for the Olympics?" Shimer responded.
Holcomb says he finally blurted out the truth as a knee-jerk reaction. "I'm going blind," he told Shimer. "I have to retire."
Shimer now understood.
By then Holcomb had been correctly diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative thinning of the cornea that was distorting and ultimately ruining his vision. He saw a dozen specialists who recommended corneal surgery, a procedure that would have knocked him out for at least one Olympic cycle, even if it worked -- and "worked" likely entailed freezing the effects of the ailment so it wouldn't get worse, but not necessarily correcting Holcomb's vision.
Perhaps Dr. Brian Wachler was his lucky 13. Wachler told Holcomb that he felt he could fix Holcomb's vision impairment with a two-step procedure. In the first, his eyes received a vitamin solution that reacted with light and kept his vision stable. In the second Wachler numbed his eyes and then placed lens behind the irises of his eyes. When Holcomb went into the office that day, Wachler asked him if he could distinguish details on an adjacent wall. "No, I can't even tell that there is a wall," Holcomb answered. At the end of the operation, he saw details clearly. "It was a new life," Holcomb says. "I had forgotten what life looked like and suddenly it was life in high definition."
Holcomb was back, but ironically the same procedure that corrected his vision made him driving worse before it was better. "I wasn't driving by feel anymore," he says. "I could see snow falling, paper flying by, people standing on the side, lines of the other drivers. I was thinking of too many things." So he fixed the problem by choosing not to clean his helmet, leaving the blurring effect of snow and dirt on the glass, so he could see less of what was in front of him.
Once he found the right combination of visual and sensory cues to guide him, Holcomb began tearing up the circuit. He won world and Olympic titles in the four-man sleds, and last winter he captured gold medals in both the two and four-man sleds at the world championships in Lake Placid. He will likely be a favorite for more hardware at the Olympics in Sochi next winter.
He has become the cheery, approachable face of his sport that is gradually growing in popularity. But he had kept his depression secret even from family before starting his book with writer Steve Eubanks two years ago. In the summer of 2011, an Olympic teammate, aerial skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, took his own life at age 29.
"Speedy's death made me think about it," Holcomb said, "but the first person was the writer. I hadn't told him about it or anyone. I thought it was something I'd take to my grave. Then I just said it."
As Holcomb shared his thoughts, his words about depression sounded a caution for those around someone in trouble. "If someone's struggling," he says, "ask another question... I was lucky to get a second chance."