SOCHI, Russia -- Imagine hurtling down a curved ice track at 85 mph in a 500-pound bobsled while wearing a helmet filled with murky water.
That essentially describes Steven Holcomb's vision six years ago. The U.S. bobsled pilot had keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease that causes distorted vision and can lead to blindness. His eyesight was so poor that he was putting himself and his teammates in danger.
He was driving, quite literally, by the seat of his pants.
"I would never have gotten into a sled with me, looking back," Holcomb said. "It's like, 'You're crazy.' I couldn't see."
He hid his deteriorating vision from everyone, spiraled into depression and eventually attempted suicide in a Colorado Springs, Colo., hotel room by chasing a handful of sleeping pills with a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
Fortunately, Holcomb survived the overdose. A rare procedure restored his vision to 20/20, and he returned to dominance on the bobsled track.
And now he will try to write history at the Sochi Games.
Holcomb can become the first American since Billy Fiske in 1928 and '32 to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the four-man bobsled. He also will try to become the first American in 78 years to win two-man gold and the first American in history to sweep the bobsled gold medals at the same Winter Games.
Only five others have pulled off that double. The last was Germany's Andre Lang in 2006.
The first two heats for the two-man bobsled are Sunday and the final two heats are Monday at the Sanki Sliding Center. The winner has the lowest aggregate time for the four heats. The four-man competition dates are Feb. 22 and 23, the latter the same day as the closing ceremony.
Holcomb, 33, arrived in Krasnaya Polyana on the heels of a terrific season. He won nine of 16 four-man and two-man World Cup races, including the first seven races of the season in North America. He won the World Cup overall title in two-man and finished second in the four-man standings behind Germany's Maximilian Arndt.
The World Cup standings determine the start order for Olympic races, so Holcomb will pilot the first sled down the hill in the two-man and will be the second sled down in four-man. It's advantageous to go early in the heats because the ice is fresh.
"I like the course," Holcomb said. "It's going to be challenging to be fast. There are three uphill sections and if you make a mistake on one of those sections it's going to be detrimental to your time. But it's not going to be out-of-control dangerous or fast. There's not going to be a lot of crashes. At the same time it's not going to be easy to get down to the bottom fast."
A native of Park City, Utah, Holcomb started in bobsled as a brakeman in 1998, but it wasn't long before he was showing great potential as a pilot.
"There are guys that I would say have more of a knack for driving, I guess," he said. "There's some guys that just seem to, when they get in a sled, it just clicks.
"Some guys try to transition and they don't do it. You get great push athletes, they run off the top of the hill and it's phenomenal. They get to the bottom of the hill and it's a train wreck. Something just doesn't fit. I was lucky and it just clicked with me."
Yet as Holcomb found greater success on the track, his vision began to deteriorate. Contact lenses and glasses didn't help and before the 2008-'09 season he was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative thinning of the cornea.
Forced to retire, he battled depression and then attempted suicide, an incident he wrote about in his autobiography, "But Now I See."
"Depression is such a big thing," Holcomb said. "It's so much bigger than people understand and believe. You don't want to believe that all these people are depressed.
"It's scary because everybody hides it. I hid it very well. I kept it a secret. People I am very close to had no idea. They just thought I was being a very serious athlete and staying focused. In reality I was just withdrawn and depressed."
In the past, the only way to restore Holcomb's vision would have been a corneal transplant. He saw a dozen eye specialists before meeting Brian Boxer Wachler, a Beverly Hills ophthalmologist who performed a new procedure called C3-R (later renamed "Holcomb C3-R").
In 2008, Holcomb agreed to undergo the two-phase procedure, which uses vitamin drops and ultraviolent light to strengthen the cornea before contact lenses are implanted. Within 24 hours after the implants, his vision had gone from 20/1,000 to 20/20.
"A lot of people don't know that you don't have to get a cornea transplant," he said. "I run into people all the time: 'I'm getting a cornea transplant.' I'm like, 'No, no, no. You don't have to do that. That's terrible. Don't do that.'"
In a strange twist, however, when Holcomb returned to the bobsled track his driving got worse. He had grown so accustomed to piloting by feel that he was distracted by visual cues.
"Drivers who drive by feel are typically better drivers," Holcomb said. "It's not like I had this innate talent. I don't know, maybe I did. But as my eyes slowly got worse I was forced to drive more by feel and less by visual cues. It just kind of worked out better for me.
"When I had my vision corrected actually it made it worse. I got on a sled and all of a sudden I could see things and I was like, 'Whoa!'"
Holcomb finally found an answer. During training one day, a thin layer of condensation formed on his visor. Instead of wiping it clean, he decided to leave the beads of water on the visor. The effect was that he could see well enough to drive but was forced to rely more on the feel that had made him one of the best pilots in the world.
"Most drivers are extremely anal about their visors," he said. "If there's a little tiny scratch in the corner they'll replace their visor. Well, we went back down and I was instantly right back where I was because I couldn't see."
Within a year of undergoing the CR-3 procedure, Holcomb piloted the first American team in half a century to win a world championship in the four-man bobsled. In 2010, piloting a jet-black sled he named "Night Train," he led the USA-1 four-man team to Olympic gold in Vancouver.
In Sochi, Holcomb is driving two new high-tech machines: "Night Train 2," a $130,000 four-man sled designed by Bo-Dyn Bobsled Projects, and a two-man sled designed by BMW.
"This is no different than any other kind of racing, especially like NASCAR," he said. "You're constantly developing. The Night Train sled is five years old. It's still a great sled, but it's five years old. There are new technologies out there, there are new ideas and theories and so we needed to upgrade.
"We're not like the Russians and Germans where we're pumping out sleds and we're constantly updating and have brand new sleds every year. When we come out with a brand new sled we're serious."
Holcomb said he was nearly $45,000 in debt before winning Olympic gold in 2010. The victory and proceeds from his book helped him erase the debt. But he noted that at 33 he still hasn't saved a penny toward retirement. So why does he still do it?
"If you win a gold medal you want to win another one," he said. "I want to win two-man. I want to win the team event. It's just fun to win."
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