WHISTLER, B.C. - A lot can happen in 51.52 seconds.
Your life can flash before your eyes.
You can worry about choking.
You can let your mind go blank.
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And you can make Olympic history.
That is exactly what was going on aboard USA 1, America’s top four-man bobsled, Saturday afternoon at the Whistler Sliding Centre.
Piloted by Steve Holcomb, the sleek black sled known as the “Night Train” made history on 51.52-second final run by delivering America’s first men’s gold in the sport in 62 years.
Germany’s top sled took silver, giving pilot Andre Lange, 36, his fifth Olympic medal. Lyndon Rush drove Canada’s top sled to the bronze medal.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Holcomb said. “You dream about it for years and all of a sudden it just happens. … It’s kind of overwhelming.”
The gold medal assured the U.S. of at least 37 medals at the Vancouver Games, breaking the previous Winter Olympic record of 36 set by Germany in 2002.
When Holcomb and his crew – Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler and Curtis Tomasevicz – shoved off for their final run, they had a 0.45-second lead, an eternity in a sport often decided by hundredths of a second. The lead was courtesy of being the fastest sled in the first three runs, including track records on the first two.
They were only third fastest on the final run, but it didn’t matter.
They all approached the final run a little differently.
Holcomb said he was nervous. “I didn’t want to be the guy who blew a half-second lead,” he said.
Olsen said he didn’t think about anything during the final run, but Mesler had plenty going through his head.
“More thoughts than have gone through my head in a bobsled in my entire career,” Mesler said. “I actually heard the crowd for the first time in years. It’s been years since I heard cowbells in the middle of the track. … (I was) thinking about the last 20 years of my life.”
He thought about his parents taking him to track meets growing up in Buffalo, graduating with honors as a track athlete at Florida and missing out on medals at the 2002 and ’06 Olympics.
“I always thought that I’ve been waiting for this for so long that there is no way that I wouldn’t be able to take it all in,” Mesler said, “but I can’t even do it.”
The bobsledders weren’t the only ones who were emotional.
Coach Brian Shimer, who drove the U.S. to a bronze medal in ’02, fought back tears.
“The same emotions are coming to the surface,” Shimer said. “This is just as sweet.”
Shimer was Holcomb’s role model in the sport. And when Holcomb retired in 2007 because he was going blind, Shimer was among those who encouraged him to keep sledding.
Holcomb had an experimental surgery to insert lenses into his eyes in 2007 that improved his vision from 20/600 to 20/20. The doctor, Brian Boxer Wachler, was in attendance Saturday, Holcomb said.
Because of his vision problems Holcomb learned to drive by feel while others drove by sight. And that, Shimer said, “brought a huge talent out of the guy.”
The win was also emotional for USA Bobsled CEO Darrin Steele, whose twin brother, Dan, was in Shimer’s 2002 sled.
“There were definitely some tears as they came across,” Steele said. “These guys really worked hard across the board.”
Steele was talking about more than just the four men in the sled. He was talking about the support staff and the coaches and former NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.
Bodine became interested in bobsledding in 1992 and set out to build the U.S. better equipment. He was in the finish area Saturday to see his 18 years of labor pay off.
“Our goal was to provide American-made equipment to our American athletes,” Bodine said. “It had nothing to do with winning. Of course, after we got them built we wanted to win. We have won (before), but this is the big one right here.”
Made even bigger by the fact the Americans’ last men’s bobsled gold came in St. Moritz in 1948, the year before Bodine was born.
“Now we start the clock over,” Holcomb said, “and do it again in Sochi (the 2014 Olympics).”