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Look Out Below
DAVID EPSTEIN
November 09, 2009
A self-described combination of "speed, violence and big guys in too-tight clothes," the U.S. four-man bobsled team is on course to end a 62-year Olympic gold medal drought
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November 09, 2009

Look Out Below

A self-described combination of "speed, violence and big guys in too-tight clothes," the U.S. four-man bobsled team is on course to end a 62-year Olympic gold medal drought

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It's a Monday night in mid-October, and bobsled season has just begun, so where else would the world four-man champions be but in Lake Placid, N.Y., swapping sledding stories at Lisa G's bar? It is wings night, after all. Steve Holcomb, pilot for Team Night Train (USA 1 was a little drab for this blithe bunch), is trying to explain the art and science of negotiating a perfect line down the lightning-quick Lake Placid course. It was there, last March, that he drove his quartet to the first world championship for a U.S. team in 50 years and raised hopes that at the Vancouver Games next February, the U.S. men can win their first Olympic bobsledding gold medal since 1948.

Physics dictates that there is an ideal path for an object weighing nearly 1,400 pounds—human cargo included—and traveling 80 mph down a mile-long, curve-riddled, ice-coated chute. To find that line, says the 29-year-old Holcomb, you reverse engineer the course. If you need to leave curve 20 at a certain height up the track wall in order to maintain top speed, then you have to enter the curve at a height dictated by your exit from the previous turn. In order to do that, you have to know the straightest line from the exit of curve 18 to the entrance of 19, and so on up the hill. Holcomb gives a thoughtful and detailed tutorial. Never mind that two Coors Light bottles are standing in for curve 20, and a Labatt Blue and a candleholder are obliging as curve 19.

Perfection, of course, is unattainable. Nobody gets the sled runners at the exact right millimeter on every turn. That's where the art comes in. The sled is an extension of the driver's body, Holcomb says, and he must feel the pressure in his hands, his arms and his legs and know instantly when he's too high or too low on a curve. A few inches off can quickly become a few feet as the curves pile up and magnify every mistake. Next thing you know, you're careering off the walls—or riding upside down.

Before going on, Holcomb grasps a pair of imaginary D-rings, the handles used to steer the sled, and closes his eyes. He's feeling the curves in his mind as he zooms through the Coors Lights. Driving by feel is something he has grown accustomed to, and not entirely by choice. Two years ago, before he became a world champion, Holcomb almost quit the sport because he had nearly gone blind. His vision had deteriorated to 20/500 from a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus in which the corneas bulge outward. Much of what he does was learned by the Skywalker method.

Recall Star Wars: Obi-Wan trains the young Luke Skywalker to trust what he feels by making him wear an opaque visor while fending off laser blasts. "I can't even see; how am I supposed to fight?" Luke asks.

"Your eyes can deceive you," Obi-Wan replies.

That is especially true in bobsledding, a sport in which waiting for visual cues can hamper a driver's reaction time. But having learned to drive by feel as no driver before him, America's sledi knight will have an advantage on the 2010 Olympic track, the world's fastest, with sleds reaching speeds of 95 mph.

Last year doctors implanted lenses made of a special polymer behind Holcomb's irises. He emerged able to appreciate some simple pleasures he'd never experienced before. "The way leaves flicker in the wind," he says, "that's pretty cool. Before, I just saw green." But his improved condition is a negative in one way. "I actually have to try to ignore what I see now," says Holcomb, who, in a move that would make Obi-Wan proud, has stopped cleaning his helmet visor.

The boiler that gets the Night Train rolling is composed of three guys you would love to meet if your car got stuck in the snow: all former Division I athletes, two football players and a decathlete. But as explosive as that trio is at pushing the sled, the foursome often does not clock the fastest start.

In the team's first of four runs at the 2009 world championships, the Night Train was .04 of a second behind the juggernaut German team piloted by André Lange over the 50-meter start runway, 5.05 to 5.01. And yet the U.S. sled was ahead after only four of 20 curves and finished more than a third of a second faster. In each run at the worlds the Night Train was behind Germany after the start but quickly took the lead. Over four runs the team won by nearly a full second, handing a rare drubbing to the Germans, who have won eight world four-man titles since 2000.

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