With eyesight restored, USA's Holcomb on brink of bobsled breakthrough

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2010 

U.S. bobsledders, led by Steven Holcomb, take off en route to a track record in the men's four-man bobsleigh. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

WHISTLER, British Columbia — When USA 1 shoves off in an attempt to win America's first bobsled gold medal in 62 years, pilot Steve Holcomb will have the darkest visor in the field.

Most pilots don't wear darkly tinted visors because they want to see clearly when they are careening down an icy track at 90 mph.

"I want to take the eyes away a little bit with the visor," Holcomb said.

Holcomb has 20/20 vision but he was going blind when he learned to drive a bobsled so seeing where he's going has become a bit of a distraction.

He says he already know where he's going, anyway.

"We always plan on being on the top step of the podium," Holcomb said.

Holcomb is the top-ranked four-man bobsled driver in the world and the favorite to win gold Saturday at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Holcomb enters the final two runs with 0.40-second lead over second-place Canada 1 after setting track records on both his runs Friday.

Last winter he, and teammates Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Curtis Tomasevicz — they go by Team Night Train — became the first Americans to win a bobsled world championship since 1959.

Not bad considering Holcomb retired in 2007 resigned to the fact that he would soon go blind.

Holcomb had Keratoconus, a disease that caused his corneas to bulge and for his vision to quickly deteriorate.

His site started to fade in 2000 when laser eye surgery accelerated the disease.

Holcomb's vision faded so fast that after a few years he needed a stronger contact prescription every three months.

"He was wearing these huge, thick glass contacts," Mesler said. "Some days his eyes would reject the contacts."

On those days the team couldn't train on the track.

Holcomb still managed to drive both two- and four-man sleds in the 2006 Olympics in Turin finishing 14th and sixth respectively.

At this point Holcomb was driving by feel instead of sight, letting the force of the up to five G's tell him how to steer the sled. In some ways this technique was an advantage.

"When you see is when you over think," Mesler said.

By 2007, Holcomb says his vision was 20/600 and he could no longer get contacts strong enough to help.

"If these guys knew how bad my eyes were I don't think they would be in the sled with me," Holcomb said.

They knew something was going wrong, but they didn't know how bad his vision had become.

"If it ever got to the point where it was unsafe we didn't know it," Mesler said.

Mesler was more concerned about his friend.

"It was tough on him," Mesler said. "He was depressed about it. It's not like a typical injury where you can lay on your back and forget about it. You open your eyes in the morning and you are going blind."

In June 2007 Holcomb begrudgingly retired.

"It was at the point where if I crashed and hurt somebody I'd feel pretty bad," Holcomb said.

He was prepared to accept his fate as a blind person or somebody who would have to have cornea replacement surgery every 15-20 years.

"But my coaches didn't take me seriously," Holcomb said of his retirement. "They went out looking for a doctor who could help me."

They found Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler in Beverly Hills, Calif., who wanted to try an experimental procedure where he would insert a lens into Holcomb's eye.

The procedure was not covered by insurance, but U.S. bobsled team and the International Bobsled and International Bobsleigh and Tobogganing Federation offered to cover the cost.

"Basically I could stay retired and go blind or have the surgery and maybe save my eyes and continue my career," Holcomb said.

The procedure only took a few minutes, Holcomb said, and after a short nap to sleep off the medication he woke up with 20/20 vision.

"It's like life in HD," Holcomb said.

Holcomb promptly unretired and jumped back into the pilot seat of USA 1. But an HD view from the sled proved to be sensory overload.

"I learned to drive by feel over several years and then all of sudden you throw in the vision," Holcomb said. "That was really tough."

So, Holcomb said, he started using a tinted visor to make the view a little less clear so he can once again rely on what he feels.

What do his teammates think about their pilot intentionally impeding in his own vision in such a dangerous sport?

"I don't think they care," Holcomb said, "as long as we get down the track and we are winning."

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