Steven Holcomb nearly fell victim to suicide before bobsled success
Bobsledder Steven Holcomb discusses his suicide attempt for the first time ever
He kept secret that his vision was deteriorating, which led to a deep depression
Holcomb finally got help he needed with prodding from his coach Brian Shimer
Steven Holcomb's story of triumph over physical adversity was a highlight of the Vancouver Games, an everyman guy piloting the U.S. four-man team to its first Olympic gold medal in men's bobsledding since 1948. But before the champion driver conquered an eye ailment that nearly stole his vision and ruined his career, Holcomb nearly gave in to the darkness of suicide. To hide his disease from friends and teammates, he withdrew into isolation and never let on that it had reached a critical stage. In his new book, But Now I See, Holcomb describes for the first time the spiral of depression that drove him to attempt suicide rather than accept and come forward with his ailment. He spoke to SI on Friday, Nov. 30, a day before Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher took his life and that of his girlfriend in an apparent murder-suicide.
The book details much of what was already known of Holcomb's story. He grew up in Park City, Utah, one of the two places in the country (Lake Placid is the other) that has a regulation course for sledding events, and he humbly tells everyone that along the way that he encountered a remarkable run of luck and happenstance that enabled his success.
"I wanted to be an Olympian since I was tiny," he says, "But I thought it might happen in skiing or at least something other than bobsled."
His first stroke of luck occurred before he was even involved in the sport. When he was 18, Holcomb and his father happened to drive past Bill Tavares, an athlete who just happened to have his sled sticking out of his pickup truck. Holcomb had seen those before, but it convinced him to attend a tryout camp. He took the sport's standard eight-point test of strength drills and sprints to see if he could make national team. The cutoff for the national B team was 675 points, and Holcomb scored 675 exactly.
"They took the top eight pushers and I finished eighth," he says, "But I was only 18. They told me they were taking the ninth guy because he was older, more experienced. I thought, 'Okay, that's how it is.'" But when another sledder got hurt, Holcomb moved up one place and became one of the team's push athletes.
Holcomb was brought on board veteran driver Brian Shimer's four-man crew, but Holcomb suffered a hamstring injury that knocked him out of the 2002 Olympics. Since he wanted to be part of those Games held where he grew up in some way, he learned how to drive, and helped out as a forerunner -- a driver who wouldn't need to push but could allow organizers to test the course and equipment before competition begins. The injury, in effect, enhanced Holcomb's flirtation with driving, and ultimately compelled his switch to the position in the sled that would make him a world and Olympic champion. It was another stroke of luck.
At the time, he began having manageable issues with his vision, nothing a non-driving push athlete couldn't handle. In 2000, he had gone in for lasik surgery to improve the vision, but actually exacerbated the problem. As his vision deteriorated, Holcomb went to one specialist after another without results. The once outgoing chatty socialite withdrew, not wanting to let people know he wasn't able to see routine items clearly.
He faked his way through the eye tests in annual physicals for the bobsled team by memorizing the first few lines of a chart on the wall. "F-E-L-O-P-D," he says as if the deception was still right in front of him. "D-E-F-P-O-T-C. I had it down. If I strained and hesitated just enough, it wouldn't be too obvious. But honestly I could see any of it. Nobody caught on ... When people came up to me I could tell who they were by their voices, their shuffles."
Even with his worsening vision, Holcomb's driving was improving. He was navigating by feel, sensing every bump and undulation of the tracks and anticipating turns as they came up on him. His two and four-man sleds became more competitive internationally, and his four-man sled reach sixth at the Turin Olympics in 2006. Still, Holcomb was becoming more reclusive.
But it wasn't just the eye test. Holcomb had been a very social kid and teenager, but his teammates only knew him as the sledder who hunkered down in his room and passed on invitations to hang out. What if somebody asked him about that last play of the football game they were watching on the flat screen? What if they wanted him to play darts? What if an acquaintance started talking to him in a noisy room where he couldn't distinguish the voice very well? Everyone knew he wore contacts. But he'd wear what he called his "bullet-proof glasses" as infrequently as possible.
"They were gigantic," he says. "They were a giveaway. If somebody walked in on me when I was wearing them, I took them off right away. People knew I had them; they just didn't know how bad I needed them."
Most of all, he feared that his deception could one day injure a teammate. "I couldn't see. I felt I was putting lives in danger," he says. "How do you deal with that?"