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Originally published February 27, 2010 at 7:32 PM | Page modified February 28, 2010 at 3:16 PM

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Ron Judd

Holcomb pilots U.S. to first four-man bobsled gold in 62 years

Fittingly, one of America's best-ever Winter Olympic showings was capped this day by a gold medal for Holcomb, one of the most-liked athletes on the U.S. team because of his unique makeup.

Seattle Times staff columnist

WHISTLER, B.C. — Looks like George Costanza. Drives like Mario Andretti. Wins like no other American of his generation.

Or the two before that.

America's Steve Holcomb, 29, stood at the finish area at Whistler Sliding Centre Saturday as the first four-man American gold medalist in 62 years. This after breaking a 50-year drought by winning a world championship at Lake Placid, N.Y., last year.

To do it, he outdueled Germany's Andre Lange, the legendary 36-year-old who had won every Olympic race he'd ever entered — four of them, including this Olympics' two-man contest earlier this week.

"You wouldn't even know he's the best bobsledder in the world," Holcomb said of his legendary opponent, who is retiring. He describes Lange as a regular Joe — not a pretentious bone in his body.

Which is funny, because it's exactly what everyone close to Holcomb says about the new king of the track.

Fittingly, one of America's best-ever Winter Olympic showings was capped this day by a gold medal for Holcomb, one of the most-liked athletes on the U.S. team because of his unique makeup.

"Holky," as he is known to teammates, looks, acts and seems like an everyman — one who just happens to outthink, outwork and outperform the rest of the world.

Holcomb is a grease-rag kind of guy — someone who rolls up his sleeves and does some of the dirty work of bobsled maintenance back at the garage in Lake Placid.

He's a team player, a former ski racer who started at the bottom as a pusher. He overcame, through surgery, near blindness caused by keratoconus, which causes the cornea to bulge outward.

He's a natural leader, a man his pushers would — and do — throw themselves off icy mountaintops for.

The reality: Holcomb is a tremendous athlete, a rare combination of raw pushing power and fine motor skills, all of it honed by thousands of hours in the gym and thousands more doing reflex training — often by playing video games.

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Add to this the rare ability to drive a track by feel — a skill honed, perhaps, by years driving nearly blind — an analytical mind and pure passion for his sport, and you have bobsled's new top dog.

"He's got an amazing talent, and he knows how to use it," says crewman Curt Tomasevicz.

Holcomb represents the culmination of a U.S. plan to regain dominance in the sport — a frontal assault that was launched nearly two decades ago. First, a huge technology gap in sled design was made possible by the Bo-Dyne Bobsled Project, funded and organized by 1986 Daytona 500 champion Geoff Bodine. His team of engineers and mechanics gradually have made the U.S. the envy of the bobsled world.

Holcomb's menacing, flat-black "Night Train Express" sled is Bo-Dyne's latest masterpiece — evidence that in the world of bobsled design, the U.S. has gone from wannabe to kingmaker.

Two years ago Russian bobsled officials approached Bo-Dyne's chief engineer and offered a "blank check" for a new sled design. They were turned down cold.

"It's a whole team," Holcomb said, citing Bo-Dyne, his coaches and especially his pushers — Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Tomasevicz — all of whom "put their heart and soul into this."

Sixty-two years of frustration melted joyfully this day at the base of Blackcomb.

"I've been here for 20 of those 62 years," said USA-3 driver Mike Kohn, whose team finished 13th. "I know the struggle. I know what these guys have been through."

So, it seems, do their opponents, who were giving it up for the Americans.

After the final two runs Saturday, in which Lange's Germany-1 sled sneaked past Canadian Lyndon Rush's Canada-1 to claim the silver medal, U.S. athletes were talking to reporters at the finish line when one of Lange's crewmen walked past, smiled and mimicked the chant of the crowd, whispering, "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Holcomb won by 38 hundredths of a second. In bobsled terms, that's a blowout.

The best news for the U.S.: It was perhaps the first of many for Holcomb, who plans to keep putting that rounded form and uncanny skill down the hill in Bo-Dyne sleds for a long time to come.

"I'm a lifer," he said. "I don't plan on going anywhere. Hopefully I'll be up there, like Andre Lange, 37 or 38 years old, doing this. I'm living the dream. How can I give that up?"

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280

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