Steven Holcomb was a world champion bobsledder. But he had a secret. He was going blind. Here is an excerpt from his new memoir.
At the height of my career, I faced a frightening situation over which I had no control and I learned firsthand what conditioned fear feels like. My eyesight was deteriorating, and I had just been told that I would eventually go blind. First, I was scared. Then I became depressed, not gee-I’m-sad-my-team lost depressed, but seriously, clinically, can’t-get-out-of-bed depressed. No amount of training or experience can prepare you for the full range of emotions that you go through and the physical and psychological changes that manifest when you know that your world will grow darker by the day.
There were also a couple of other problems. First, I was a bobsled driver, the person responsible for piloting a projectile down the world’s most treacherous runs—yet I had eyesight so bad I would have been kept from getting a driver’s license in any state. That in and of itself should have caused a great deal of concern, and probably would have were it not for one very important detail, a detail that was perhaps even more problematic than the fact that I was going blind: I kept my condition a secret.
Nobody knew—not my teammates, my coach, or even my closest friends. Anyone with 20/200 vision is considered legally blind. My vision was 20/600 and getting worse by the day. Without the strongest contacts made, I couldn’t see to get from the locker room to the starting line, and yet I kept it from everyone, even the three teammates who were putting their lives in my hands every time they jumped into the sled behind me.
It sounds crazy now. How could I have kept secret the fact that I was going blind? If I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, or some other terrible disease, keeping it from those around me would have been tough but manageable, at least for a while. But when someone you work with on a regular basis cannot see, you usually notice, especially after he bumps into a few things. Somehow I was able to keep everyone around me fooled, in part by insulating myself when I was away from the track and by remaining all business when I was on it.
Driving a bobsled requires explosive speed and strength, as well as quick fast-twitch reflexes. What it does not require is 20/20 vision. To understand how I was able to drive the world’s fastest bobsled when I couldn’t read a street sign on the highway, you have to imagine yourself sliding down a track with walls of ice on both sides and white turns straight ahead. Unlike race car drivers, bobsled drivers can’t see much with all the curves, just the occasional visual cue like a flagpole or the passing edge of a grandstand. Daytona 500 winner Geoff Bodine learned this after he crashed and bent the frame during his first and only run driving a bobsled. We’re actually a lot closer to air-show pilots, who see nothing but sky and ground when making their turns. Even before keratoconus started affecting my vision, I could see only a few feet in front of the sled during a run. I relied on my other senses, primarily feel, as gravity and speed pulled us into and out of turns. As my vision grew worse, that sense of feel more than compensated for my visual impairment.
This was not an excuse, or even a valid reason for keeping my condition a secret. Just as I didn’t lose my sight in a day and didn’t fall into the depths of depression in a week, my decision to keep my impending blindness from everyone came as gradually as a changing tide. Then my sight got worse. I kept telling myself that the answer was out there somewhere; I just had to find it. But with each new opinion, the prognosis grew worse. Still I didn’t tell anyone. I hadn’t said anything before, so it was easy not to say anything now. The longer I held my secret, the harder it became to confess, even as my condition worsened by the day.
The second problem was that I had finally started winning. After years of work, I was finally experiencing the kind of success that I’d been killing myself trying to achieve. So somewhere inside me, I hoped things would work out and I would never have to tell anyone that I had a problem.
Unfortunately, as the spotlight grew brighter, my ability to see it got worse, my depression deepened, and the pressure of keeping my secret intensified. By all rights my career was over, and I knew it. Everything I had worked for, everything I had wrapped my identity around, was fading like a movie screen going to black. Not only would I not reach my goals, but I would live my life either as a blind man or a transplant recipient, or so I thought. I had become a lot quieter as my eyesight worsened, which was not my natural personality. As a teenager I was the most outgoing person in my circle of friends—the life of the party, according to those who knew me best. But as my eyesight deteriorated, I found myself spending more time alone. When it came to the point that I had to take my contacts out and put on glasses, the guys on my team joked with me, calling me Mr. Magoo and saying, “Jeez, Holcomb, are you blind?” I didn’t respond because the honest answer was, “As a matter of fact, yes, I am.”
Finally, I had no choice—I had to tell my coach. Not only was it unfair for my team to continue working as hard as they were with the expectation of winning a World Championship or an Olympic gold medal, but I could no longer live with the knowledge that I might crash and injure—or kill—someone because I couldn’t see.
Three months after the most successful American bobsledding season to date in 2007, my team gathered in Calgary for the first of three one-week training sessions. Our coach, Brian Shimer, was, at that time, the most successful driver in U.S. bobsledding history. Now he was getting us ready to go further and accomplish more than he ever had. Calgary has one of the best push tracks in North America, an area where teams can simulate pushing and loading into the sled. A tenth of a second difference in start times—faster than most people can clap their hands—can translate into a three-tenths difference at the end of the run, which is an eternity in a sport like bobsledding. Brian wanted to make sure we stayed sharp and fast throughout the summer. The World Championship was coming up, and then the Olympic Games. Given the season we’d just had, this could be a historic time for USA bobsledding.
It was an extraordinary time, but my mind was elsewhere. I had just gotten the final prescription lenses, the strongest contacts made, and they weren’t working. Every specialist I had seen had said the same thing: “You have to have a cornea transplant.” None of them said, “You’re out of the sport.” But that was only because it was obvious. The procedure would involve having the front of my eyes lopped off and replaced with corneal tissue from a recently deceased organ donor. The recovery from that procedure is two years for each eye, which would take me out of the World Championship and Olympic Games and effectively end my career, even if there were no complications. Like organ transplant patients, cornea recipients are on antirejection drugs for the rest of their lives. I would also have to take a lot of precautions, and bobsledding wasn’t one of them. One good thud during a run and my corneas could fly right out of my head.
It was over. Now I had to tell my team. First, my coach.
Before I even spoke, Brian knew something was wrong. I was rooming alone in the basement of the house we had rented, and I hadn’t come out for two days. He had no idea how far I had fallen in my mind, or how the onslaught of the depression had become a familiar old friend that I simultaneously dreaded and welcomed. While my teammates were warming up for their workouts, I was in the basement. When I did come out, I was lethargic and unresponsive, a man with a thousand-pound weight on my chest and nowhere left to turn. Finally, Brian pulled me aside and said, “Holcomb, what’s going on? Do you not want to be here? These guys are here to work and you’re mailing it in. They’re here for you. You need to show them that you care.”
I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture, so I turned away from him and said, “I’ve got bigger fish to fry right now.”
“Bigger fish to fry!” he shouted. “What could be bigger than being an Olympic champion?”
There was no better time to tell him. The question had been asked. All I had to do was answer.
“Shimer, I have to retire.”
“Retire! What are you talking about? You’re twenty-seven years old. You just had the best year of your career. You can’t retire. We’re on the cusp of history here.”
My lip quivered and my voice caught in my throat. I had to take some deep breaths. After a couple of seconds, I steadied myself. And then I said it.