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Saturday, February 27, 2010
Torch now passed to Holcomb, USA-1

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- In the end, on the final day of Olympic bobsled racing, there was no drama at the finish line, no suspense to the day and, finally and thankfully, no carnage on the track. You would think a historic day that ended an interminably long drought, and launched one promising career while ending a legendary one, would pack a bit more punch.

But the vaunted USA-1 "Night Train" crew of Steven Holcomb, Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and brakeman Curt Tomasevicz were so good, so dominant, so completely in control of the men's four-man bobsled race, that seemingly from the first run (when USA-1 set a track record on the notoriously fast Whistler track), the much-awaited competition turned into a coronation. They said they were the best and actually made it look easy.

USA Bobsled
Steve Mesler, Steven Holcomb, Curt Tomasevicz and Justin Olsen won the first gold medal for the U.S. in sliding's signature race since 1948.

USA-1 won the gold medal Saturday, the first time an American men's four-man bobsled team could claim that title since 1948 and only the third time overall. The United States had also won gold in 1932.

Holcomb, the USA-1 driver, reinforced his 2009 World Cup championship with an Olympic gold medal, while the silver medalist, the great German driver Andre Lange, closed out a storied career with a valiant finish. Lange had won four consecutive Olympic gold medals and will retire with a silver.

"To me, it's bittersweet," Holcomb said of beating Lange, who had already won gold in the two-man competition last week. "I'm good friends with Andre. You're thrilled, but at the same time, you're like, 'Sorry, dude. I didn't mean to rain on your parade, but I have my own parade going on now.'"

In a final burst, Lange showed off his championship pedigree, charging back on his final run to overtake the Canadians for the silver by 0.01 of a second. The Canada I sled driven by Lyndon Rush took bronze.

"I won five Olympic medals, among them four gold. Had anyone told me that eight years ago, I would have thought they were crazy," Lange said. "They are certainly great and worthy winners, and we will cherish our silver medal."

The entirety of the two days belonged to USA-1, whose members had said since late in the fall they believed they were the best four-man team in the world, proving it during the World Cup season and finally putting down a mandate during four runs over a two-day period in Vancouver.

During an afternoon of horrible crashes, USA-1 blistered to a commanding lead on the first day, one that was never threatened after the first run. They led by 0.23 of a second after the first, 0.4 of a second after the second, and 0.45 of a second following the third before a final victory margin of 0.38 of a second.

"They sort of embarrassed the field, to be honest with you," said Canadian Pierre Lueders, who finished fifth. "They showed up in our backyard and it's kind of the theme I guess of the Olympic Games. The Americans have shown up in Canada and whipped us. And hats off to them. And they're great guys. Couldn't be happier for them."

Geoff Bodine, the former NASCAR driver who for the past 15 years has been designing the Bo-Dyn bobsleds for the U.S. team, was there for the crowning. So, too, were a couple of the kid skeleton sliders, Bree Schaaf and Emily Azevedo, who surprised with a fifth-place finish in the women's two-man competition.

"I just thought that it was a shame that these guys were using products that weren't even made in America," Bodine said. "I'm very proud of them and I would have been regardless of how they finished. This is a remarkable moment."

The competition had been thought to come down to Holcomb and Lange, but even Lange did not challenge for the lead. On Friday, the Whistler track seemed impossibly fast, thanks to a driving sleet that accelerated its speed, highlighted by six crashes. Lange nearly crashed on his second run, but somehow righted himself for a fast time, giving the impression he might stage one last challenge.

On medal day, however, the afternoon weather softened the track and slowed it down, creating a crash-free day of racing. After the third run, Holcomb extended his lead over Lange to 0.54 of a second, an impossible time to make up barring a crash. Vlade Divac, the former NBA star who is now the president of sport for Serbia, was standing at the track before the final run. He said he was surprised by the speed of the sport, up-close.

"I told our guys not to worry about their speed or about their times," he said. "I told them to just get down the course safely."

For the American sliding sports teams, the culmination of the Olympics provided a bit of relief. What began with a luge team unable to adjust to track changes imposed after the death of the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, was followed by near-misses to medal in the skeleton (Noelle Pikus-Pace and Zach Lund), a bronze medal in the women's bobsled (Erin Pac and Elana Meyers) and finally the expected gold medal from Holcomb and his crew.

"It's one thing to believe you're the best, but it's another to come out on the Olympic stage and do it," said USA Bobsled and Skeleton federation president Darrin Steele. "I'm glad there was no suspense. That's the way we like it. Sixty-two years is a long time."

When the afternoon ended, there were handshakes and hugs. Lange, the great champion, exited and Holcomb took center stage. The torch was passed.

"It'll take a little while for it to sink in. You work so hard to get somewhere, and you finally get there, you say, 'Now what? I don't know what to do,'" Holcomb said. "But at the same time, these guys have trained so hard and worked so hard and gone through so much the last four years, so to end on a high note like this is huge. It's going to be an interesting day. It's overwhelming. It's a relief.

"I think this will put us on the map a little more. We've always been kind of a threat, but we haven't been at the top of our game," he said. "To now have a World Championship and an Olympic gold medal is huge."

Tomasevicz said all week Holcomb had a "gift" for bobsled driving. As they blazed down the course for the winning last run, a person on the track said of Holcomb, "He drives as if he doesn't need walls."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.