AS STEVE HOLCOMB'S bobsled crossed the line on the final run at the world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Sunday morning, U.S. men's coach Brian Shimer threw his hands in the air. "It's over!" he yelled. "What a sight!" The foursome of Holcomb, Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curt Tomasevicz had become the first U.S. men to win a world or Olympic title since Art Tyler piloted a four-man sled to victory in St. Moritz in 1959. It was a two-tiered triumph for Holcomb, 28, who earlier had won a bronze in the two-man with Tomasevicz—but he was just glad to be able to see the replay clearly on a video screen.
Holcomb, a 5'10", 230-pound computer technician and specialist in the Utah National Guard, has struggled with poor vision since high school. He suffers from keratoconus, a degenerative eye disorder in which the cornea distorts, causing streaking and blurring in the vision. Laser eye surgery in 2000, two years after he joined the national team, failed to improve his condition, and by '07 his vision had deteriorated to 20/500. Though he'd taught himself to drive the sled by feel and memory more than by sight, Holcomb feared that his vision problems might endanger his teammates. "Contacts just weren't strong enough anymore," Holcomb says, "and I was ready to tell Shimer it was time to quit. I was so nearsighted, I had to get right up to the eye chart just to make out the big E at the top."
Traditional corneal surgery would have left his eyes susceptible to damage from a jarring bobsled run. So last March he underwent a radical procedure, yet to be approved by the FDA, in which doctors implanted a lens behind each iris. When he woke from the surgery, Holcomb immediately noticed the detail of the palm trees in one of the posters on his doctor's wall. "An hour before, I didn't even know there were posters," he says. "It was a new world."
The improved eyesight had some disorienting effects. During a practice run in Lake Placid weeks after the surgery, Holcomb got spooked when a small cover flap on the front of his sled ripped off and flew by his helmet. "It happens a lot," he says of a flap coming off, "but I never knew that because I never saw it. Sometimes I have to turn my eyes off because my sight is so good, I get distracted. If another sled flips, I can make out the skid marks where it crashed and I start thinking about it." Thanks to that clearer vision, though, Holcomb won medals in four of his first five World Cup races this season, and with Sunday's victory he has emerged as a strong contender for gold in Vancouver next February.
Shortsighted coaches were U.S. women's driver Shauna Rohbock's complaint in Lake Placid, even as she piloted her two-person sled to a silver medal behind Britain's Nicola Minichiello and Gillian Cooke. For the past four years Rohbock, 31, and brakewoman Valerie Fleming were regulars on international medal stands, scoring bronze at the worlds in 2005 and '07 and a silver at the '06 Olympics. But last month, in a race-off on the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler, B.C., Elana Meyers, 24, edged Fleming, 32, by .02 of a second. Coaches then replaced Fleming with Meyers, against Rohbock's wishes, for worlds. "The coaches think they know what's best for me, and they have no idea what's best for me," Rohbock said last Friday, expressing her discontent despite sitting in first place after Day 1. "I've won more medals for this federation than anybody out here. I've lost so much sleep. The fun is just sucked out of it."
The pre-Olympic twists and turns have begun.
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