By David Wharton, Tribune Olympic Bureau
5:09 PM CST, February 23, 2014
SOCHI, Russia — Down near the bottom of the track, shooting out of Turn 15, Steve Holcomb glanced at a time clock just off to the side.
Bobsled pilots are not supposed to let their focus wander — not at 80-plus mph — but Holcomb could not help himself. And the green numbers meant that his time was good.
Oh God, don't mess up, he recalled thinking. Don't mess this up in the last two corners.
The final stretch went according to plan, just fast enough for Holcomb and USA 1 to capture bronze in the four-man bobsled on the final afternoon of the Sochi Olympics.
It was a strong effort in an event that, from the beginning, belonged to Russia's Alexander Zubkov.
No one knew the highly technical track at Sanki Sliding Center better than the veteran Zubkov, who drove hundreds of training runs there leading up to the Games. Most other pilots had 30 or 40.
Still, it took flawless execution to turn that knowledge into a record time on the course and Zubkov's second gold medal in the bobsled at these Games.
"We won and we proved to everybody that we are the best," he said. "That is most important."
The silver went to a surprising Latvian sled that came within .09 of a second of scoring a major upset, and nonetheless earned the country's first medal in bobsled. The American crew finished .39 back.
"The Russians are fast," Holcomb said. "I made too many mistakes and my injury kind of held me back."
His left calf muscle strain dated to the two-man competition, where he also finished third behind Zubkov. The night before Sunday's four-man finale, U.S. team doctors kept Holcomb up past midnight administering treatment.
It must have worked because the pilot and his teammates managed a quick start in the third heat, inching from fourth to third. They got off fast again in the final run, but suffered a costly bobble down the hill.
A change in setup this week had made USA 1 a little faster, if more difficult to handle. Not an ideal situation on a track with atypical uphill stretches and so many places to lose time.
After the misstep in Turn 5, the American sled continued to leak precious hundredths of a second at each interval, and risked slipping into fourth place.
It had to be a tense moment for Chris Fogt, the only man on the crew without an Olympic medal.
Fogt is a military officer who was deployed to Iraq for a year after competing in the 2010 Vancouver Games and will return to active duty in early May. He had seen Holcomb and his other teammates, Curt Tomasevicz and Steve Langton, stand on the podium before.
"You're kind of envious," he said. "You think it would be so cool."
The man at the controls wasn't about to panic.
Holcomb, who won gold in this event four years ago, was trying to become the first American pilot with three career medals. He is known as a consistent driver, not the sort to give ground.
After the slip-up, he made the necessary corrections, coaxing his sled to hold on. Even with those green numbers on the clock, it figured to be close.
The trick was to keep a light touch and let the sled go through the final turns. USA 1 crossed the finish line just .03 of a second ahead of fourth-place Russia 2.
Hardly a perfect run but, as Holcomb said, "it ended up being just enough."
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