By Vicki Michaelis, USA TODAY
Two years ago, Steven Holcomb's eyesight was degenerating so rapidly he thought he'd have to retire from driving bobsleds down slippery, snaking tracks at speeds nearing 100 mph.
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Now, after an experimental procedure last March, Holcomb could end the USA's 50-year world championship title drought in bobsledding.
Holcomb enters the bobsled world championships, which start Friday in Lake Placid, N.Y., on a winning streak. He and his crew won two World Cup gold medals in four-man bobsled in Park City, Utah, last week. The week before, they won World Cup silver in the four-man event held on the 2010 Olympic track in Whistler, British Columbia.
"A huge burden has been lifted off his shoulders, in terms of looking a year out from now to (the 2010 Winter Games), knowing that his eyesight shouldn't be an issue," USA Bobsled men's head coach Brian Shimer says.
In the coming days, Holcomb could lift the U.S. bobsled team out of its world championship doldrums. The USA last won world gold in the 1959 four-man event. No U.S. team has won a world championship title in the men's or women's two-man.
"Over the last 10 years or so, we've had World Cup titles," says Shimer, who as a bobsled driver won bronze in two world championships. "We've been in the top three numerous times. But when the single-most important race of years comes along, we seem to have always just missed out.
"With it in our own backyard, we have a better opportunity than we ever did."
Todd Hays, who ended a 46-year Olympic medal drought for the U.S. men's bobsled team with a silver in 2002, also won silver the last time the worlds were held in Lake Placid in 2003.
Holcomb, 28, has been the U.S. men's top driver in recent years, placing sixth in two-man in the 2006 Olympics and finishing atop the two-man World Cup standings in 2007. He also was second in the 2007 World Cup standings in four-man.
But in the summer of 2007, he told Shimer he probably wouldn't be able to compete through the 2010 Olympics. Shimer knew Holcomb had vision problems, but until that conversation Shimer didn't know the severity.
"I think he's gotten to where he is because he doesn't rely on eyesight as much as feel of where he needs to be," Shimer says. "Things happen so fast that vision isn't really clear a lot of times anyway. … People would come down, and they'd be complaining about the fog or the snow. You'd ask Steve, and he'd go, 'I don't know what they're talking about. It was fine for me.' "
Even Holcomb's crewmembers were unaware how bad his eyesight was.
"I took my first trip in October of 2004, and Steve was my driver. Before we went down, he was just dousing his eyes with contact solution," Curt Tomasevicz says. "It made me nervous. But after five years, I know that I wouldn't rather be behind any other driver."
Holcomb has keratoconus, which distorts vision because it changes the shape of the cornea. He tried Lasik surgery in 2000, but that helped only for a short time. By 2007, his eyesight was 20/500 and doctors told him they couldn't prescribe contact lenses strong enough to continue correcting it. Eyeglasses were an option, but he couldn't wear them while driving bobsleds.
"I was pretty close to hanging it up, because they told me there were no options other than cornea transplant," Holcomb says. Transplants would make his eyes too fragile for sliding.
Shimer consulted with former U.S. bobsledder-turned-doctor Scott Stoll, who told him about a procedure in which corrective lenses are implanted behind the irises. Holcomb had the surgery, not yet FDA-approved, on March 6. He admits there are risks.
"Technically speaking, it could all go awry and I could go blind. I'm a guinea pig," Holcomb says.
But, he adds, "I could instantly see clearly. It's an amazing feeling. It's life in high-definition."
The difference was so dramatic that it took adjustment this season. Holcomb was seeing things he never had before on bobsled tracks, such as the marks left by competitors' runners. "I started to drive by vision and I stopped driving by feel, which was the key to my success," he says.
Now he keeps the shield on his helmet scuffed and dirty, and his improved eyesight is just one reason he and his crew have a clear path to medal potential at the worlds.
"He uses all his other senses to get us down," Tomasevicz says. "Now that he can see, it just adds more to his package of driving skills."
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