Steve Langton

How to view 28 medals

There are lots of ways to look at the performance of the U.S. team at the just-concluded Sochi 2014 Winter Games. The American team won 28 medals, nine gold.

The optimist says that’s great.

Life is imperfect, for sure // photo Getty Images

The realist says the U.S. not only could have done better but almost surely should have. The International Olympic Committee added 12 new events to the 2014 program, mostly in the so-called action sports, and in those 12 Americans won nine medals. So — what happened around so much of the rest of the team?

Starting with the optimist’s view:

Sochi marked the best U.S. performance at a non-North American Winter Games. Those 28 medals were second only to the host Russians, who won the overall count with 33. Nine tied the mark set in Vancouver four years ago for most-ever gold medals at a non-domestic Games. The U.S. team won 10 in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Mikaela Shiffrin, just 18, won the first gold medal in women’s slalom skiing in 42 years. Ted Ligety won the men’s giant slalom under extraordinary pressure.

The two-man bobsled team, Steve Holcomb and Steve Langton, won the first medal of any color — in this instance, bronze — in 62 years. Holcomb would later drive the four-man sled to another bronze.

Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper swept the Olympic debut of slopestyle skiing. That marked only the third time U.S. men have swept the podium at the Winter Games. The prior occasions: figure skating 1956, snowboard halfpipe 2002.

Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, declared last Saturday at a news conference at the Sochi 2014 main press center that, overall, the American team had done a “fantastic job.”

The realist’s extrapolation:

Starting from the exact same place: 28 medals, nine golds, and comparing that with Vancouver: 37 medals, nine golds.

Should going to Russia instead of just across the border to Canada make so much difference?

If before the Games Americans would have been a known lock for nine medals in the 12 new events, experts in some circles would not have found it unreasonable to have predicted 40 medals overall for Team USA.

How, then, to appropriately assess 28?

The entire U.S. Olympic Winter team did not win as many medals as the U.S. track and field team did in London in 2012. The track team won 29.

For that matter, the U.S. 2012 swim team won 31.

Overall, there were 98 medal events at the Sochi Games. One potentially very useful metric is how many medal opportunities there were — that is, available spots for Americans to earn a medal.

It’s not a simple case of multiplying 98 times three (the number of medals per event). In some events there might only be one American available to earn a medal; in others, several.

Bottom-line: there were, by the end of the Games, 255 medal opportunities. Again, American athletes earned 28 medals. That’s a return rate of 10.98 percent.

Perhaps this, then, might offer the best measure of the 2014 U.S. team’s performance: is a return rate of 10.98 percent good, or can it — or better yet, ought to be — improved upon?

For comparison, the London track team’s return rate: 29 of 143, or 20.3 percent.

The gold standard is the 2012 U.S. swim team: 31 of 62, or 50 percent.

Of the nine gold medals, five came from new events; four from events that had been on the program before 2014.

As pointed out by Law Murray, a graduate student at the Annenberg journalism school at the University of Southern California who was a credentialed reporter at the Games, all nine of the gold medalists are under age 30.

Much of the pre-Games media attention focused on veterans such as snowboarder Shaun White and speedskater Shani Davis. Neither medaled. As Murray also noted, of the 20 individual medalists, 14 won medals for the first time in Sochi. Only the 20 new medalists from the 2002 Salt Lake Games exceeded that number.

The USOC looks at all these kinds of things, and more. It has two fundamental priorities. One, win medals. Two, inspire the American public. The inspiring depends on the medals. This is the mission. And the mission, so it’s clearly understood, can involve some serious money.

Strictly speaking, the USOC does not, in the manner of a traditional American business, seek ROI, or return on investment. But — when you are laying out $2,724,345 to US Speedskating, as the USOC did in 2012, the year for which disbursements are most recently available, according to the USOC’s tax returns, and the long-track team goes oh-for-Sochi, it’s reasonable to launch a far-reaching inquiry.

As first pointed out by Gary D’Amato of the Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel, the U.S. long-track team’s medal count since 2002 has gone like this: eight, seven, four, zero. That belies an institutional problem that, finally, exploded into the public domain in 2014.

USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said last Saturday, “If you look at the speedskating results, we weren’t the only nation that got smoked,” the Dutch taking a torch to the rest of the world.

Echoed Ashley: “Our job now is to say, ‘What went wrong, what went right and how do we improve?’ “

Another program that figures to invite scrutiny: the figure skaters won a bronze in the new team event, true, but left Sochi without a medal in men’s or ladies’ singles for the first time since 1936. That is, in a word, unacceptable.

The USOC, according to its tax statements, gave the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. $842,486 in 2012; $866,966 in 2011; $1,023,025 in 2010.

The United States produced the men’s gold medalist in 2010, the women’s silver medalist in 2006 and gold medalist in 2002. Now?

The last U.S. woman to medal at an Olympics or world championships — in an Olympic year, the worlds come after a Games — is Kimmie Meissner, who won the world championship in 2006.

Since 2010, no U.S. man has finished higher than seventh at the Olympics or the worlds.

Figure skating’s scoring system is opaque, surely. But last Thursday, on a night when Americans Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner were talked up big-time by many of figure skating’s most traditional U.S. supporters — Gold would ultimately would finish fourth, Wagner seventh — the TV ratings underscored the challenge:

The ladies’ free skate, traditionally a highlight of the Games, attracted 20.3 million viewers, as Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova won gold over South Korea’s Yuna Kim amid controversy. The comparable night in Torino, when American Sasha Cohen won silver, drew 25.7 million. That is 5.4 million fewer people, a drop of 21 percent.

The U.S. men’s hockey team came to Sochi proclaiming “gold or bust,” beat the Russians in one of the Games’ most dramatic moments and then, in a 5-0 bronze-medal loss to Finland, proved they really meant it — it really was gold or time to go into the tank. “We didn’t show up. We let our country down. That’s it,” forward Max Pacioretty was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times.

There were high hopes this might be the breakthrough year for both cross-country skiing (no medals since 1976) and biathlon (no medals, ever). Didn’t happen.

It’s easy to see how the U.S. team could have more than made up the medals it won four years ago:

Lindsey Vonn did not ski in Sochi because she was hurt. In 2010, she won two.

The Nordic combined team, altogether, won four in 2010. In Sochi, zero.

The long-track team, in Vancouver, four. In Sochi, zero.

Add those together and you get 10. Add 10 to 28 and 38 is almost the 40 that figured to come with the new additions to the program.

Of course, sports — particularly at the Olympics — can often prove a matter of woulda, coulda, shoulda.

For every medal the United States didn’t win, there’s one it surprisingly did — such as Andrew Weibrecht’s silver in the super-G, a reprise of his 2010 bronze in the same event.

Some would suggest that the move to 28 from 37 is also tied to the increasing globalization of the Winter Games. In the men’s snowboard halfpipe, for instance, traditionally the province of White and other Americans, no U.S. man medaled; two Japanese and a Swiss rocked the podium.

Then again, in Vancouver, 26 national Olympic committees won medals. In Sochi, exactly the same number, 26 NOCs, won medals.

“Things don’t always shake out the way you want to,” Ashley, ever diplomatic, said last Saturday. “The surprises are sometimes way more exciting than the disappointments.”


Like "barely moving" ... at 90 mph

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- At the first turn, my head cracked against the right side of the bobsled. Then the sled swung the other way, and my head slammed against the left side of the sled.

Good thing I was wearing a helmet. But for 46 seconds, I pretty much felt like a bobble-head doll as we rocketed down the bobsled course, the same one they were running a World Cup event on that weekend.

I was the No. 2 guy in a four-man sled that late afternoon and, frankly, they were being nice to me -- Bryan Berghorn, the driver; Michael Burke, the No. 3 guy; and Shane Hook, the brakeman. We didn't start at the top of the course. We put in a few turns down. We only reached about 70 mph. Not 80 or more, like they do when they really mean it.

"I'd do rides all night if I could," Berghorn, a Lake Placid guy, said, and now having done it once, experienced the wild roller-coaster ride, it begs the question -- how in the world do you learn to maneuver these things? (By the way, not to brag -- OK, I'm bragging: I did not get woozy or worse.)

With the Sochi 2014 Games approaching, bobsled is increasingly soaking up the spotlight. The U.S. team features standouts such as Steve Holcomb, the reigning four-man Olympic and world champion, and his powerhouse pushman Steve Langton; moreover, track and field stars such as Tianna Madison and Lolo Jones are making a bid to join the 2014 winter team.

Victory in a bobsled race typically comes by fractions of a second.

Control matters.

So how do you achieve that control?

Because, just to be obvious, ice is really slippery.

Well, to be equally obvious, you don't achieve that control overnight.

It takes a lot of practice. With that practice comes experience. And with that experience comes feel.

And then, finally, comes confidence.

Jazmine Fenlator started on the bobsled in 2007 after running track in college. Her first ride, she said, "was not comfortable -- in all honesty, it let like someone stuffed me in a garbage can and someone rolled me down the hill." But, she said, "I definitely enjoyed the thrill."

That was in the back of a sled, of course. Someone else drove.

After a few trips in Park City, Utah, in the front in 2008, she finally went to formal driving school in 2009 in Lake Placid. "What takes getting used to," she said, "is staying calm and staying relaxed. You don't feel the G forces as much but you do feel the pressure."

She said, "I definitely relate it to being a teen-age driver with your permit to being a driver five years later," adding, "Over time you become more aware and more comfortable."

With corresponding results.

After working her way up to several World Cup starts last year, Fenlator and Jones took silver at the World Cup event here in Lake Placid; teammates Elana Meyers and Madison took the bronze.

For his part, Holcomb said, "It's just like anything else. You don't start at the top your first time. You start where you did. And then you go down a few times. Your first couple runs -- you're absolutely terrible, you're bouncing off walls. It's a learning curve. And then you get to the point where you understand what you're doing."

Think about what it's like, even as an experienced driver, when you first merge onto an interstate highway, he said. You look to your left and all the cars are going 70 or 75 miles per hour. Everything seems to be going so fast.

Now give it 10 minutes.

You're cruising down the highway at 75. The speed is relative. You're so in control that you can fiddle with the radio, or eat an apple, or whatever, all the while keeping your eye on the road -- and, again, you're doing 75. More, if the highway patrol isn't around, right?

That's what it's like when you have experience on the track. Doing 75, or even 80, doesn't seem at all perilous.

In fact, it's just like what football players say. The game slows down.

Holcomb won the two-man race in Lake Placid, and then again at the next tour stop, in Park City, and would go on to win the two-man for a third straight race, in Whistler, B.C.

Before that third race, on a track widely considered the fastest in the world, he said, "We're going 85 to 90 miles per hour here in Whistler. It's fast. But I can see everything in front of me. I'm in control. I know exactly what is going on.

"It feels," he said, "like we are barely moving."

Steve Holcomb: driving to history

Three years ago, Steve Holcomb won gold at the bobsled world championships, driving a four-man sled. Two years ago, he won four-man gold at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.

On Sunday, pushed by Steve Langton, Holcomb won gold in the two-man at the world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.

It's the first American gold in the two-man in the 80-year history of bobsled world championships.

That four-man worlds gold had been the first in 50 years; the Olympic four-man gold the first since 1948.

"I don't know -- I'm kind of running out of records to break," Holcomb said late Sunday, laughing in disbelief.

"We had an unbelievable drive by Steve," Langton said. "He is an unbelievable pilot. He can drive anything down the hill."

Name another American in his sport who has achieved as much.

Michael Phelps has of course won more world championship and Olympic medals.

Shaun White has perhaps pushed more boundaries.

But in his sport, Steve Holcomb has lifted the United States team back to heights the Americans haven't known since John Glenn was orbiting the earth all of three times. And before, way before -- since the Great Depression.

In Olympic terms -- before the first Los Angeles Summer Games in 1932.

Top that.

Later Sunday, Holcomb switched sleds and his brakeman, Justin Olsen, and anchored the U.S. to its first-ever worlds team gold by a margin of 56.20 seconds, the fastest of the eight teams competing -- the times a combination of men's and women's skeleton, women's bobsled and men's two-man bobsled.

Germany had won all four prior team golds, in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011; the U.S. had taken silver in 2007, bronze in 2008 and 2009. Germany took second Sunday, 73-hundredths of a second back; Canada, third, 1.30 second behind.

Holcomb, in a telephone interview, repeatedly gave credit Sunday to his teammates, coaches and the U.S. support staff. He also said, "If you put a sled in front of me, I'm going to do my best to drive it."

Holcomb turned not only his career but everything around in March, 2008, with the help of an eye doctor in Beverly Hills, Calif., Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler.

Holcomb was suffering from a condition called keratoconus, which causes the eye's cornea to bulge outward. Glasses and contact lenses weren't working. Lasik hadn't worked, either. Holcomb was so nearsighted -- and so frustrated -- he was ready to quit bobsled.

How nearsighted? He couldn't read the big E at the top of the charts. Not even close.

"It was kind of a standing joke," Holcomb said Sunday, recalling what it had been like then. "I had to stand eight inches from the big E to see it."

In 2003, it turned out, Boxer Wacher had developed a procedure to restore Holcomb's vision. He called it C3-R; it involves administering drops to strengthen the cornea and then embedding a lens behind the iris of each eye. The procedure took remarkably little time.


The results on the track since speak for themselves. Simply put, when you have Holcomb's innate talent, it makes an enormous difference to be able to see, actually see, where you're going.

Boxer Wachler has since renamed the procedure the Holcomb C3-R.

Last September, at the U.S. Olympic Committee's annual assembly in Colorado Springs, Colo., Holcomb -- on stage to receive the 2010 team of the year award -- became emotional when discussing the difference Boxer Wachler had made. He didn't just save my career, Holcomb said. He saved my life.

Before Sunday, the best the United States had done in the two-man at the worlds was four silvers; the most recent had been in 1961. The Americans had won but six bronze medals; four had come between 1949 and 1967 and then Brian Shimer, now the U.S. men's coach, had won one in 1997.

The way a competition like the two-man works at the worlds is, in all, four runs -- the first two Saturday, the final two on Sunday.

Holcomb's first run was off. He knew it. He posted to his Twitter feed, "Huge mistake in the first run. Sitting in 4th. Got it figured out. Time to make my move."

In the second run, Langton powered to a 5.02-second start and Holcomb got them to the finish line fastest of the 27 sleds that finished the run -- ending the day just 12-hundredths of a second behind Canada's Lyndon Rush and Jesse Lumsden.

In Sunday's first run -- that is, the third overall --  Langton again came out hot, at 5.07 and Holcomb got them down in 55.54 seconds, the fastest of any team in all four heats. That put the U.S. team up top by 20-hundredths of a second over the Canadians, 26-hundredths ahead of Germany's Maximilian Arndt and Kevin Kuske.

"Very happy with my 1st run, but the race isn't over," Holcomb posted to Twitter. "Need to stay focused & relaxed, then do it again."

Which is what he did, finishing the day with a final run of 55.63.

The U.S. team's winning time over four runs: 3.42.88.

The Canadians finished 46-hundredths back, the Germans 55-hundredths.

All three U.S. sleds finished in the top 10:  John Napier and Christopher Fogt took sixth, Nick Cunningham and Dallas Robinson ninth. Both Napier and Fogt are in the military and served overseas after the Vancouver Olympics, Napier six months in Afghanistan, Fogt a year in Iraq.

"Everything is clicking," Holcomb said. "Everything is going well … Right now we are on top of the world. Everything is fantastic. I am living life. When you get a second chance at being able to see, it gives you a new perspective on life -- it really does."