Classic push start by the team of Esme Kamphuis
By Wina Sturgeon
Olympic fire is burning in Park City, Utah; burning in the bellies of the bobsled athletes desperately trying to win the selection races being held this week on the 2002 Olympic bobsled track. The first Olympic competition is against teammates, because only the winners get to go to the Games.
The winner of Sunday’s two-man race was predictable: 2010 gold medalist Steve Holcomb, who teamed up with national push champion Chris Fogt to win both runs and set a new track record for their start time on the 2002 Salt Lake Games track: 4.75 seconds.
Holcomb already earned a bye onto the national team from his results last season, but racing in team trials helps him get his head ready for the pre-Olympic season. This is the second selection race; the first was last week at the Lake Placid track. Holcomb and Fogt won that race as well.
An Olympic gold medal entitles an athlete to nothing, as Holcomb is aware. “I know I need to step up my game because the other drivers are stepping up theirs,” he says.
The men and women hoping to be selected for the national team will spend most of this week training. The final selection starts Friday, October 25, with the season’s first men’s four-man sled race and the women’s race—women compete only in two-person sleds. The second four-man race is Saturday. The national team will be named the following day.
Barely-repressed tension vibrated the atmosphere during Sunday’s race. Every athlete team that rode down the track, including the U. S. women who were training, wants to compete in Sochi. But only those selected for the national team will have a chance to make it. The U. S. is currently limited to just three men’s sleds and three women’s sleds. But if the fastest Americans dominate races during the upcoming international season, those results may win additional Olympic slots. That’s why only the top bobsled pilots in the selection races will get a World Cup berth—and the opportunity to wear their country’s Olympic uniform.
Brian Shimer, head men’s coach, has big dreams of glory. He says, “Where can you go after you win the gold? Now our fire is to dominate the podium, to go one-two-three.”
This Olympics, the U. S. women are in the mix as well. Alana Meyers is considered a favorite for the Sochi gold medal, despite competition from Germany’s Sandra Kiriasis (formerly Prokoff), who at 38 years old, is facing her final Games and will be determined to go out in style.
Esme Kamphuis, from the Netherlands is ranked fifth in the world, and is training with the American women. Her coach, Nicola Minichiell, says that the top four women’s sleds will be a “bonfire” leading up to the Games. “I think the top four sleds on the World Cup this year are going to be Esme, Alana, Canadian and current Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries, and Sandra,” she says.
Meanwhile, Holcomb is not at all discouraged at having come in fifth at last February’s test event, a World Cup race on the Sochi track. His father, also named Steve, says, ” He’s researched this: whoever wins the World Cup race on the Olympic track before the Olympics, has never won the gold medal. Never. So he’s not worried.