LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – Next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, will be the pinnacle for hundreds of athletes around the world. It is when all the countless hours of practice and perfecting technique, from a young age, with endless wake-up calls at dawn pay off. For figure skaters, skiers, hockey players, and yes, even curlers, it is when years upon years of perfecting an athletic trade come to fruition on each sport’s grandest stage.
Then, there are the bobsledders.
“I hate to say it, but it’s quite possibly the easiest way to get to the Olympics,” 2010 Olympic gold medalist driver Steve Holcomb said. “If you can run and jump and get in the sled, then you can go to the Olympics in about a year.”
It’s not like they’re handing out visas to anyone at the Olympic Training Center, but nor are the sport’s athletes bred from a certain age like so many other Olympic sports. Bobsledding still requires a keen mix of speed, strength, and driving agility, skills adaptive from other sports that play into pushing a sled down an icy track at 75 miles per hour. No prior experience necessary. Heck, no prior experience expected.
“You can’t buy a bobsled at Dick’s Sporting Goods,” said Melrose native Steve Langton, who will be headed to his second Olympics next month as a member of the 2014 US Olympic bobsled team in Sochi. “There’s no NCAA bobsled. So you really do just fall into the sport.”
In Langton’s case, this will be his second straight Olympics after competing but not medaling in Vancouver in 2010. This time around, he’s a member of Holcomb’s four-man squad and a favorite for gold. Holcomb helped snap a 62-year Olympic gold medal drought for the Americans in 2010, and won both the four-man and two-man bobsled world championship titles in 2012. He’ll likely have Langton pushing for him in the two-man as well. The pair won gold in the event at last month’s World Cup in Lake Placid in addition to taking the top prize as members of the four-man as well.
“He’s hands-down the best push athlete in the world,” Holcomb said of Langton. “He’s been that way for a couple years now, and I don’t see him letting up anytime soon.
“Having him on the brakes takes a lot of pressure off me in the two-man, knowing I’m going to have a great start and great velocity down the hill, that right there takes a lot of pressure off me from knowing I have to be perfect. I can give myself a little bit of ability to make some mistakes, and not have to have a perfect run every single time out and that’s huge. There are a lot of drivers out here that don’t have that kind of start and it puts the pressure on.”
It all begs the question, just how in the world does a kid from Melrose become the best at his position in bobsledding?
Even more impressive? He’s not the only Langton who has adapted his athletic skills to the bobsled route.
The bobsled brothers
Langton’s rise to Olympic status came almost too easily. He was a member of Northeastern University’s track and field team, graduating in 2005 as what he deemed a “pretty average sprinter” on a national stage. Running at a weight of 225 pounds during his collegiate career, it was only a matter of time, he said, before the lighter athletes caught up to him.
“I knew that was the end,” the 30-year-old Langton said. “That was about as far as track and field was going to take me. So I sought out another athletic opportunity that would speak to my athletic endeavors and stumbled upon the great sport of bobsledding.”
Langton, much like most Americans, had to that point watched bobsledding every four years, when the sport gets rare national television coverage during the Olympics. But after doing his research, he discovered that push men only had to run about 35-40 meters at the start of any race, a factor that spoke well to what his frame had to offer. He filled out an application, and attended a summer recruitment camp, which are offered about five or six times each year, in Lake Placid. By 2008, he was Rookie of the Year, and a year later claimed the U.S. National Push Championship title. In the 2010 Games, he competed in both the two-man and four-man races in Vancouver with pilot John Napier. He finished 10th in the two-man event, and the team did not finish the four-man.
After Vancouver, Napier retired, as did a member of Holcomb’s gold medal crew, Steven Mesler. Langton joined the team, and since has helped push the four-man squad to one of the premier bobsled teams in the world.
While all this was going on, as Steve was immediately making his name known on the bobsledding circuit, his younger brother, Chris, was attending Cornell University, where he played lacrosse. In 2010, Chris found himself caught up in the pageantry of the Vancouver Games, and it sparked his own entry into the sport of bobsledding.
“When he went to the Olympics, I remember watching the Opening Ceremonies and seeing him walk out, wearing the colors of the USA, just so prideful that I remember thinking to myself ‘OK, after I graduate, after I finish lacrosse, I’m going to get into bobsledding,’” he said.
Chris helped lead St. John’s Prep to the Catholic Conference championship in 2005 and 2006, and was the team’s captain and MVP in his senior season. As a senior at Cornell, he scored 18 goals and two assists for Big Red as a speedy midfielder, a position that his brother said he was definitely oversized for at 6-feet and 218 pounds, making him a solid candidate to transfer his skills to the bobsled track. He graduated in 2012, and much like Steve’s quick rise to prominence, Chris has found early success in the sport as well, serving as push man for Cory Butner’s four-man team since 2012, and was named to the US National Team last fall.
“People ask what I do now, I graduated college a year ago, and I say ‘bobsledding,’ and I get a lot of funny looks,” Chris said. “As I got into it, I learned more and more about it. It’s a small niche, our athletic event, not a lot of guys know about it, but I think our success will help.”
But at the World Cup in Lake Placid, while Steve found the podium twice over three days, Chris finished 15th overall in the four-man race, a precursor to the fact that he wouldn’t be marching in the same Opening Ceremonies as his brother in Sochi. That leaves the door open for 2018, when the Games will be hosted by South Korea.
“Obviously the Games is a gigantic scale, the pinnacle of athletics,” Chris said. “So when you get there it’s huge. I’m excited about that prospect.”
Strong American team
Officially named a member of USA-1 last Sunday, Steve Langton joins a crew that will include Holcomb (who hails from Park City, Utah), Curt Tomasevicz (Shelby, Neb.), and Chris Fogt (Alpine, Utah). The US team also boasts athletes from California, Kentucky, and Florida. Yet the biggest news to arise from the announcement was that Lolo Jones made the women’s team as a push athlete, thanks to her status as a two-time Olympic hurdler, bringing a dash of star power to the event. As if the recent success for Holcomb and company really needs it.
“The Americans have always been pretty competitive in bobsled,” Holcomb said. “It’s just really a back-channel kind of sport and we don’t really get a lot of attention. We’re in the back of everybody’s minds, and it comes out Olympic years, but I think we’re going to be competitive.”
Langton calls his success in bobsledding a “trial by fire” process. In his seven years, he’s seen a lot of recruiting ventures turn up flat because bobsledding isn’t really being a sport that can be taught at a certain level unless you have the athletic prowess to bring to it.
“Recruiting never really pans out,” he said. “You see a lot more guys have success when they seek it out themselves, because nobody grows up bobsledding. It’s usually an athlete that comes from another sport, whether it be football or track and field.”
Essentially, bobsledding is a sport where you come to it, it doesn’t come to you. And if you’re lucky enough, you too could be headed to your second Olympic Games.
“I think in 2010, we were just so busy that it’s a lot harder to get caught up in the hype in the media than you would think because you’re just so busy focusing on your sport and making the team and then doing well in your race,” Langton said. “I was still wet behind the ears my first time around. I felt so lucky and blessed to compete in Vancouver for my country on the world’s biggest stage.”Follow Eric Wilbur on Twitter at @GlobeEricWilbur.