KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — An hour after his last race at the Sochi Olympics, U.S. bobsled driver Steven Holcomb stood near the finish line of the sliding track and started to take a look over the snow-capped mountains.
In short, he’s eager to see what’s next for American sliding.
After the show the U.S. bobsled, skeleton and luge teams put on at the Sanki Sliding Center – taking home seven medals, the most of any nation – he’s hardly the only one with that sense of anticipation. And since the U.S. Olympic Committee takes world-championship and Olympic performance into significant account when doling out budget cash, chances seem high that the Americans might turn Sochi success into a springboard for the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.
“We can train as much as we want, but without the equipment to get into, we can’t be competitive,” Holcomb said. “It shows a lot and I think it’s going to build a lot of motivation and momentum going into the next four years. It’s huge.”
American success, or lack thereof, in sliding was always pinned on how the U.S. couldn’t keep up with the rest of the world when it came to innovation. Over nine consecutive Winter Olympics starting in 1960, the Americans never won a single sliding medal. They won two in doubles luge in 1998, and then came what was perceived to be a breakthrough – eight, on home ice, at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.
In 2006 and 2010, combined, only three medals followed.
But with a commitment to technology – continued strides by the Bo-Dyn group that makes four-man bobsleds, much more specific design work on skeleton sleds, a big investment from BMW into building what they call “ultimate sliding machines” for the two-man and women’s bobsled teams, and a major revamping in luge equipment led by Dow Chemical – the Americans medaled in every discipline at Sochi.
“The thing is, we still don’t even know how fast these BMW sleds can be yet,” U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer said.
Assuming the financing is there, the American teams could just keep getting faster for Korea – where the home team likely won’t be a huge medal favorite like the Russians were in Sochi.
And for the most part, the U.S. stars of these games might just be hitting their peaks.
Holcomb has three medals now, tying the most of any U.S. bobsledder, and he plans on sticking around for another quad.
At least two of his top brakemen, Steve Langton and Chris Fogt, have said they would be interested in continuing their careers.
Women’s luge star Erin Hamlin now has Olympic bronze to add to her 2009 world title, and it would be a surprise if she picked now as the time to retire.
“Luge isn’t the biggest sport at home and we’ve never won an individual medal before,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully this gives it a boost.”
In women’s bobsled, Elana Meyers drove to silver and Jamie Greubel to bronze, and they both expect to continue. Retired U.S. track and field star Lauryn Williams, who became the fifth person in Olympic history to medal at the Summer and Winter Games in different sports by teaming with Meyers for silver, is almost certainly done with sliding now after a whirlwind six-month career.
Lolo Jones, who helped bring Williams into the sport, might be back. And the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is already getting besieged by applicants who saw how Jones and Williams came in from other sports and found success, so odds are the pipeline of available talent won’t be dry anytime soon.
Skeleton will lose silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace, but men’s bronze medalist Matt Antoine may stick around, as will Katie Uhlaender, who was fourth in the women’s event at Sochi.
“We have so many great athletes,” Pikus-Pace said. “America is going to have a lot to be proud of for a long time to come.”
A new World Cup season starts in the fall, and it will start providing clues as to what the American teams will do. USA Luge expects that Hamlin’s medal could be a giant boost. The USBSF has enjoyed four years like no other, and after six medals for their teams alone in Sochi, the next four should be even better.
“Seven medals in one Olympics,” U.S. bobsledder Justin Olsen marveled. “That says a lot about who we are, and where we’re heading.”