KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Another Olympics, another chance to end the drought for the U.S. bobsled program that has lasted 62 years.
And the one the team really wants to address goes back 78 years. The last time an American two-man bobsled won an Olympic medal was 1952, and the last time one claimed the gold was 1936. Both of those numbers have been very much on the mind of the U.S. contingent for many years and will surely be again on Sunday when Steven Holcomb, Cory Butner and Nick Cunningham drive their sleds into the first two runs of the two-man event at the Sochi Games.
"I'd say it's time," Holcomb said. Fortunately for the medal-starved U.S. crew, drought-snapping is one of Holcomb's specialties. He was at the controls of USA-1 when it won four-man gold at the Vancouver Games four years ago — ending, you guessed it, a 62-year span between American victories in bobsled's signature race. Improved four-man sled technology was a huge part of that golden ride, and the U.S. is hoping the same holds true at the Sochi Games.
A fleet of new sleds designed by BMW are what American two-man pilots drive now, with much early success. "You see the evolution of the technology and every year you come up with something that's a little bit better that usually costs a heck of a lot for just small increments of time, usually less than a tenth of a second," said U.S. men's bobsled coach Brian Shimer, a former Olympic driver. "Sometimes you think you've gone as far as you can go. Now BMW's taken it to another level and it's mindboggling."
The results this year would suggest the Americans finally have a real chance of getting the Olympic breakthrough they've wanted for generations. Holcomb won five of the eight two-man races this season. Butner finished fourth in the World Cup standings, and Cunningham won a silver and two bronzes on tour this winter. Just about every weekend, the BMW sleds — which the Americans are still learning certain nuances about, given that they've had them for a relatively short period of time — were near, or at, the top of the two-man heap.
The trick now is making it happen on the weekend where it matters most. "It's going to be a good race," Holcomb said. "The Russians have the home track advantage and that's huge. We're undefeated in North America but the Russians know how to get it done on this track and they do it consistently."
True, a Russian sled driven by Alexander Zubkov or Alexander Kasjanov was either first or second — or they were both in the top two spots — in three of the six official training runs, and that's even with the home team skipping the final available practice trip on Saturday. Switzerland's Beat Hefti, who was No. 2 in the World Cup chase to Holcomb, also won a pair of training runs, and Germany's Francesco Friedrich was fastest in one practice heat.
Often, the separation between top of the standings and middle of the pack is just a few tenths of a second. As in all sliding sports, there's no real room for error, and that might be particularly true in two-man bobsled.
This is where the Americans hope the BMW technology pays off. "When you're talking about the sport of bobsledding, a few hundredths of a second over four heats of racing adds up to quite a bit," Shimer said, as American women's bobsled coach Todd Hays — another former U.S. Olympic pilot — looked on, nodding. "I can't tell you how many times Todd or I have just missed the medals by a few hundredths of a second."
Chimed in Hays: "I can." At the last 11 Olympics, the top U.S. sled in two-man has finished, on average, in 10th place. Serious strides have been made in recent years, maybe most notably when Hays and Garrett Hines were 0.03 seconds away from the bronze at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, settling for fourth. The Americans' top finish at Turin in 2006 was seventh, and they were sixth at Vancouver four years ago.
In all, 10 different nations — including the days when there was a Soviet Union, East Germany and West Germany — have won medals in two-man since the Americans last got one. Germany has 18 of them. Romania and Britain even have one.
So Holcomb isn't alone in his thinking. Around the U.S. camp, everyone's thinking the same thing: It's time. "Time to win some medals," Cunningham said.
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