Five years ago, Steven Holcomb was the top-ranked bobsled driver in the United States. He was arguably the very best in the world.
Holcomb was winning just about every race his two- and four-men teams competed in, beating the Russians and the Germans, the longtime class of the sport. His gold-medal dreams were never more realistic; his skills never so sharp.
But he had a secret that was burrowing inside of him.
Steven Holcomb was going blind.
Holcomb’s story, shared in his recently released memoir “But Now I See” is one of triumph and courage. But it’s also one of deep sorrow and grief. In the wake of the tragic Jovan Belcher murder-suicide in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 1, stories like Holcomb’s hopefully can inspire other athletes to do what the 2010 gold-medal winner did when he reached his lowest point — speak up and seek professional help.
While it may have appeared as though the world was in Steven Holcomb’s hands in 2007, his life was a “spiraling mess.”
When we met recently in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, he arrived in sweats and a baseball hat with a small titanium case held firmly in his right hand.
“What’s in there?” I asked the 32-year-old world champion.
“My gold medal. People always seem to ask me about it, so I just bring it with me.”
“Pretty much,” he nodded. “What’s the point of it collecting dust in a basement?”
Holcomb holds tightly to his gold medal as he does everything else in his life these days. He’s both grateful and aware of how close he was to losing it all.
At the peak of his athletic career, Holcomb’s vision was deteriorating at an alarmingly rapid pace. On the surface, everything seemed OK. He was placing first at events and he was smiling in photographs. The US bobsled team was as good as it’d been in years, and he was one of the main reasons why.
Inside, however, he was losing his grip.
For years, Holcomb’s vision had been getting steadily worse. Scared of what could happen if the USOC or his coaches deemed his vision too poor to get in the sled, he would shake and shuffle his way through annual physicals and eye exams. Before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, he went to great measures to hide his secret.
“I felt like I had no choice, really," he told me over lunch. "I memorized the lines of the eye chart you see in doctor’s offices. I had it down. F-E-L-O-P-D. D-E-F-P-O-T-C. If nobody knew I was going blind, and my performance wasn’t taking a hit, I figured I’d be OK. But I was cheating. Not the PED type of cheating, but cheating nonetheless. Everyone else viewed the eye test as a joke, but not me. I needed to pass. So I memorized the chart and kept on going with the charade.”
But as time progressed, things got worse.
“Bobsled is not a one-man sport. It’s a team game," Holcomb said. "And it’s dangerous. I was the driver, and I was going blind. Every time we raced, I had a best friend or three best friends’ lives in my hands. And I couldn’t see a thing. Worse, I couldn’t say a thing. That guilt, that secret — it really weighed on me.”
A socially active guy who grew up skiing competitively with the likes of Lindsey Vonn and Julie Mancuso, he became reclusive in his mid-20s. In the sled, everything was normal. But once he’d be outside, in the real world with teammates, he was forced to constantly find creative ways to cover up his deteriorating sight. His inability to see anything made being social difficult. His inability to say anything about it made life downright arduous.
“There were some very dark times. Times I don’t like thinking about today,” he said, with the gold medal resting on a bench between us.
Holcomb had become so accustomed to the courses he was racing on that he was able to guide the bobsled by feel and by sound. “If I had perfect vision, I’m not sure I would have been performing as well as I was. I could only see the very small window in front of me. There was nothing to be scared or distracted by. I zeroed in. When a race started, I had no choice but to be in the zone.”
But the more he’d win, the more the guilt and the lies would eat away at him. What if his teammates knew he was guiding their sled — and essentially, holding their lives in his hands — without functioning eyes? What if, God forbid, his other senses failed him?
“It would have been a major tragedy,” he said softly. “A major tragedy that would have been entirely my fault.”
He’d been diagnosed with keratoconus, a rare eye disease that leads to the degeneration of the structure of the cornea, in 2000. But he always figured his eyesight eventually would improve. He thought it’d get better or that he’d be able to get around it. “It never did. It got worse and worse. It got to the point where I couldn’t deal with it anymore.”
At 27, with his bobsled career on a trajectory set for Olympic superstardom, he attended an event with sponsors in Colorado Springs. “I’d smiled and laughed and lied with effortless abandon, leading them on to believe that the money they were investing, and the time they were putting into me was worth it,” he wrote in his memoir. “My teammates were entrusting their lives to me and I was foolishly keeping a dangerous and devastating secret. One slip, one crash, one wrong move, and I would be responsible for injuring an athlete who had no clue about the conditions under which he would be competing.”
Holcomb left the event alone and slumped into the king-size bed in his hotel room when he got back. He was living a lie. He was depressed. He couldn’t take it anymore. That night, he very nearly took his own life.
“The demon’s logic prevailed,” he told me, now five years removed from the night he’ll never forget. With too many lies, too much at stake and nowhere to turn, Holcomb took 73 sleeping pills that night — an entire bottle — and chased them down with a large handle of Jack Daniels whiskey.
No note was written. No last-second text message was sent.
“I thought I would sleep forever,” he wrote in the book.
The strains of a dual life had finally become too much to withstand. That night, Steven Holcomb was willing to give it all up.
He never expected to wake up.
And when he inexplicably did, he had an epiphany.
“I was depressed. I needed to speak to someone. I had to let it all out. The lies. The guilt. Everything. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Holcomb, fortunate to be alive, decided that it was time to seek professional help.
He also woke up with the realization that it was time to tell his coach — and his teammates — about his deteriorating vision. In an emotional moment, he met with coach Brian Shimer and told him about his condition. At the end of the conversation, Holcomb retired from the sport.
“He didn’t get mad,” Holcomb recalled. “Instead he was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down. Let’s see what we can do first. There has to be a treatment.’ ”
For nearly a decade, Holcomb’s vision had gotten steadily worse. He’d been to many doctors for checkups and had stayed up countless late nights researching on the web. Though his coach was optimistic, Holcomb was certain there was no treatment for keratoconus.
Mere days after their sit-down and Holcomb’s retirement, Shimer called with promising news. There was a doctor in California, Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, who had recently started doing surgeries for the degenerative eye disease. The US Olympic Committee and the US Bobsled and Skeleton Federation ponied up the money — “I could have never afforded it,” Holcomb said — and he was sent to California for the procedure. Known in the clinical community as C3-R, it was a success. Though he’d never have 20/20 vision again, Steven’s deteriorating eyes would deteriorate no more.
“There was hope in my life, again,” he said. “After nearly ending it all, my secret was not only off of my chest, but my eyes were finally addressed, too. All that mystery, all that guilt — it was suddenly gone.”
With his fears conquered and with clinical help guiding him through his ongoing bouts with mental illness, Holcomb got back in the sled.
Three years later, he was the driver of the four-man US bobsled team that won gold in Vancouver.
Now, at 32, he eyes another gold medal in 2014 as his next career goal.
“It’s amazing now to think about how dark a place I was once in,” Holcomb said, eyeing the case that contains his gold medal. “I’m good now. But I had to address what was making me so dark. I had to speak to someone. Not everyone’s able to come to that realization."
In the wake of the Belcher tragedy in Kansas City, it’s a conversation we all should be having. If there’s something going on, it’s OK to seek out professional help. It’s OK to talk.
“If my book can teach anything, it’s that if you are true to yourself and you seek help, there’s usually something or somebody that can help.” Holcomb said. "That was the case with me. I want everyone to know about my story."
He took a sip from his drink and looked around the crowded restaurant.
“Hey, nobody’s invincible.”
Minutes later, he walked away, his gold medal tightly clenched in his hand.