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Rather than spending as much time as other teams on the runway pushing the sled, the three athletes behind Holcomb get on board earlier, quicker and more efficiently. Team Night Train loads 880 pounds of spandex-clad men into the sled in just four sprinting steps. Here's how it works.
Holcomb's spike-clad feet leave the ice at around the 25-meter mark, and two steps later Justin Olsen vaults on board. Olsen, 22, is a push prodigy. A 6'2", 225-pound hybrid of strength and speed, he played tight end at Air Force for a season before deciding the Academy was not for him. He was working at a restaurant in his native San Antonio in 2007 when his mother heard an ad for local push tryouts. One year later Holcomb picked him for his squad. "It usually takes three years for an athlete to get to this level," says U.S. Bobsled head coach Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian. "In 25 years I've seen Willie Gault, Edwin Moses and Herschel Walker do this sport, and Justin has picked it up quicker than anyone I've seen."
Two steps after Olsen boards, Steve Mesler, 31, the team's fastest member, hops on. The three spot is the trickiest, requiring an athlete with the strength to push the sled but the body control to make a surgical entry into it. He must refrain from tugging on the sled, which would decelerate it, and make sure not to land too heavily, lest he cause the sled to bounce. His ability to walk that line is why the 6'2", 212-pound Mesler, an All-SEC decathlete at Florida, gets this hot seat.
As Mesler jumps in, so does 29-year-old Curt Tomasevicz, the brakeman. He hails from Shelby, Neb. (pop. 600) and was a reserve linebacker at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have a renowned strength-training program, yet the 6'1", 225-pound Tomasevicz squats 80 pounds more now (530) than he did in his football days. Watch him lift the back of a 460-pound sled during routine maintenance and behold a human jack. "My strength," he says with a bashful Midwestern smile, "is my strength."
When you spend six months a year sharing hotel rooms, praying to find American food chains off the autobahn and doing your best sardine impression in a sled, it helps if you enjoy each other's company. "When you like each other, you win for each other," says Holcomb.
Earlier this year, while testing the 2010 Olympic course, the team executed a gag heard round the bobsled world. On a brown paper bag they wrote CURVE 50/50, and Holcomb stealthily taped the sign to the wall of curve 13, marking the spot where half of the teams had rolled over.
Such a prank "never would have happened before," says Mesler, who took a disappointing seventh at the 2006 Turin Games in a sled with driver Todd Hays. "With [the '06] team you had to have your game face on at all times."
Besides a relaxed attitude, new technology is helping too, and that comes thanks largely to NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine. Watching the 1992 Albertville Games, Bodine was dismayed at the poor quality of America's sleds—the team would buy used ones from European competitors—so he started the nonprofit Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project. With Bodine's friend and chassis builder Bob Cuneo as head engineer, the project became "the savior of U.S. bobsled," Shimer says, making sleds that are 100% American. In the Night Train, the U.S. has a vehicle on par with sleds made by the Germans and the Swiss.
Now the team wants to generate fan interest on par with those countries'. Up until now Cool Runnings, the 1993 film about the '88 Jamaican bobsled team, has been just about the lone touchstone of the sport for most Americans. But Mesler points out that bobsledding has a lot in common with other sports that U.S. fans enjoy. "We're going 95 mph with no shocks or struts," he says. "You've got big football players and the risk of injury. Speed, violence, big guys in too-tight clothes ... what more do Americans need?" Mesler knows the answer, and it provides motivation as Team Night Train looks ahead to Vancouver. "Americans like winning," he says.
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