Steve Holcomb was found dead on May 6, 2017 at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. The former bobsled driver’s memory lives on at the 2018 Winter Olympics as competitors try to honor their former teammate. Bobsledder Justin Olsen spoke with the USA Today about Holcomb’s impact on the team.
“A year ago when we were here, we had four pilots here,” Olsen told the USA Today. “And three of us are here now, but I think Steve lives on in a beneficial way in my life and it’s the same with the other pilots and the brakemen. And as he should. He was influential to everybody. There’s no sense in being sad. That’s not going to help. We’ve got to go on.”
According to USA Today, Holcomb led the U.S. in 2010 to an Olympic gold in four-man bobsled for the first time since 2010. Teammates have been wearing “Night Train” bracelets in Holcomb’s honor at the 2018 Olympics. It is a nod to the nickname of the bobsled Holcomb piloted.
Learn more about Holcomb’s tragic passing.
1. Pulmonary Congestion Was Initially Thought to Have Caused Holcomb’s Death, While a Later Toxicology Report Revealed a Mix of Alcohol & Sleeping Aids Were in His System
According to the USA Today, pulmonary congestion was the initial probable cause of death for Holcomb. The Adirondack Medical Center’s preliminary report tested negative for drugs, and foul play was not suspected.
“Our deepest sympathies go out to the family, friends and teammates of our dear friend Steven Holcomb,” Pete Piechoski, USA Bobsled & Skeleton Board of Directors Chairman, told USA Today. “Steve was a wonderful man, and a great friend. He was a fearless competitor whose light shone bright and guided us all. You will be sorely missed, Steve. God’s peace to you on your next journey.”
A toxicology report later revealed Holcomb had a mix of alcohol and sleeping aids in his system. Team USA issued a press release on the findings.
Toxicology specimens were sent to NMS Labs in Willow Grove, Pa. for analysis. That report was provided to the Holcomb family and subsequently shared with USA Bobsled & Skeleton. The toxicology results indicate Holcomb had a fatal combination of the prescription sleep aid Eszopiclone/Zopiclone (Lunesta) in his system as well as a .18% blood alcohol concentration.
Holcomb was found to have passed away at the age of 37 in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid on May 6th. An investigation by the New York State Police and the Essex County Coroner’s Office confirmed that there was no foul play and it appeared that Holcomb passed away in his sleep. The coroner’s office ordered an autopsy, which was performed at the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and the only significant finding was pulmonary congestion.
Holcomb was from Park City, Utah, while his funeral took place in Lake Placid, New York.
2. Holcomb’s Obituary Described His Most Memorable Traits as “Genuine Humbleness, Unwavering Focus &, Most Prominently, a Down-to-Earth Personality”
The M.B. Clark Funeral Home published Holcomb’s obituary which can still be read on their website. The obituary describes Holcomb’s passion for bobsledding, being a great teammate and a friend to everyone who knew him. Here’s an excerpt from Holcomb’s obituary.
Originally from Park City, Utah, a city in which he would find an early passion for ski racing, Steven was, first and foremost, a teammate and friend to those around him. His quiet confidence was complemented by genuine humbleness, unwavering focus and, most prominently, a down-to-earth personality and sense of humor that was constant no matter who he was interacting with. A tribute to Steven’s easygoing nature, a former teammate recalled his ability to stop in the middle of warm ups and perform his famous ‘Holcy Shuffle’ upon hearing it sung from the other side of the track. No matter his race result, he would take time at every finish dock to high-five fans, sign autographs and make sure he did everything in his power to grow the sport’s following…Steven was taken too soon, and his legacy will live on in his family, friends and teammates.
In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations be made to the USA Bobsled & Skeleton organization where the funds would be given to those who struggled with keratoconus, as well as Olympic athletes who needed financial assistance.
3. Holcomb Admitted to a 2007 Suicide Attempt by Mixing Sleeping Pills & Alcohol
According to WBUR, filmmaker Brett Rapkin’s path initially crossed with Holcomb after Rapkin needed the Holcomb C3-R treatment for his keratoconus. Rapkin detailed his initial plan for a documentary on Holcomb’s inspiring story.
“Our plan was to tell the inspiring story of a guy who had survived that, miraculously woken up, gotten his legal blindness fixed and won a gold medal,” Rapkin told WBUR.
Things changed as Holcomb died just weeks after Rapkin interviewed him. In one of his final interviews, Holcomb spoke with Rapkin about battling depression, and admitted to taking sleeping pills.
It just made sense to me — I mean it just made sense that if I just end it now, it solves so many problems, and everything will just get better, and I’ll be doing people a favor. They won’t waste their money on me. They’re not going to waste their time. And then my eyes — my eyes are going bad, and I don’t want to go blind, so I’m just kind of, you know, killing 10 birds with one stone, and it just seemed, like — to me it was completely logical. And it made sense, and that’s what’s scary about depression, is that stuff does make sense. And you just end up doing crazy things.
I did. I had a whole bunch of sleeping pills on hand; that should have worked. I don’t know why it didn’t work. It should have worked. And maybe there’s something else I’m meant to do.
Holcomb admitted to a 2007 suicide attempt in the above video interview with CBS News.Rapkin noted he did not sense Holcomb was looking to harm himself.
“There was no indication to me that he wanted to harm himself,” Rapkin told WBUR. “He was excited about teammates that were returning. He was excited about some new equipment that he had gotten for his bobsled. He had so much that he was looking forward to. And his family and friends feel very strongly that his death was not intentional. So we may never know exactly how he died. But we know that he was someone who had suffered.”
Holcomb’s tragic story changed the trajectory for Rapkin’s documentary. Rapkin began interviewing other Olympic athletes to share their struggles with depression, and what life was like after their athletic careers came to an end. The documentary is called “The Weight of Gold”, and focuses on the mental health challenges of athletes.
4. Holcomb’s Best Friend & Skeleton Racer Katie Uhlaender Found His Body in His Olympic Training Center Room
According to The Salt Lake City Tribune, Holcomb’s best friend was skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, who had become concerned at the lack of communication from Holcomb. Uhlaender broke into his room at the Olympic Training Center where she found Holcomb’s body.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Uhlaender recalled Holcomb’s inspiring words after she was battling an autoimmune disease.
“Stop being the daughter your father guarded, and be the woman he raised to be fierce and reckoned with,” Uhlaender relayed Holcomb’s words to The Washington Post.
Uhlaender understands grief is a difficult thing, and has tried to give herself grace.
“Grief sucks,” Uhlaender told The Washington Post. “It makes you feel crazy. The most random things will make you feel sad or angry or all the emotions. And you just have to sit with them. And it’s painful. But I’m not going to let it stop me. All of those emotions are part of me, and I love me. So I’m going to maximize that and bring it to the line to honor them…I have 15 years with him. I think I spent more time with him than my family. He really was my family. I think we’ve been on this journey together.”
5. Family & Friends Are Honoring Holcomb Through the Steven Holcomb Legacy Foundation
Holcomb suffered from an eye disorder known as keractoconus, a condition that caused Holcomb to be diagnosed as legally blind and put his bobsled career in doubt. Holcomb started a foundation to help raise money for those who needed to have the same corrective surgery, but could not afford the medical bills.
“His gold medal gave him a platform and access to people,” Jean Schaefer, Holcomb’s mother, told the USA Today. “It was a way for him to get the word out about the foundation, about his eye condition, and he was very open about it and said, ‘I’m not just here for a gold medal.’ He realized that without the surgery and the gratitude he felt to Dr. Boxer Wachler for saving his vision he had a deep empathy with others who experienced problems. And he wanted to let people know there are alternatives to the very invasive cornea transplant.”
According to the USA Today, more than 100 people have received the Holcomb C3R procedure through the foundation as an alternative route to a corneal transplant. Those wishing to get involved can visit www.givingvision.org. The Salt Lake Tribune described the mission of the foundation.
Steve Holcomb suffered from Keratoconus, a disease that impacts the outer lens of the eye, causing distortion, multiple images, glares and halos. Holcomb was going blind before he had the procedure that has since been renamed in his honor, and Schaefer and Holcomb’s eye surgeon, Brian Boxer Wachler, have been in South Korea trying to raise awareness and funds for the “Giving Vision — Steven Holcomb Legacy Foundation.