Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — On a day filled with crashes, Steve Holcomb drove his Night Train smoothly down the track and into first place at the halfway point of the four-man bobsled competition, raising hopes of ending a 62-year gold-medal drought for the United States.
With two strong pushes, Holcomb twice lowered the track record, and he led Canada's Lyndon Rush by .40 of a second and Germany's Andre Lange by .44 of a second.
"It's a great lead to have, obviously. It kind of takes a little pressure off. Even if we do make a little mistake . . . we still have a little padding," Holcomb said. "We're going to try to extend that lead. We're not going to give up and take it easy."
Holcomb figured out the secrets of the treacherous three-curve slalom near the end of the course that has swallowed up many sleds by watching video of one of the pilots who crashed Friday, Russia's Alexsandr Zubkov, the 2006 silver medalist.
"He's been making it through clean all week and I wanted to know why he was so much better than anybody else . . . and I saw kind of what he was doing and it paid off," Holcomb said, adding that he wouldn't be sharing those secrets until the competition ends.
When it comes to starts, USA-1 is in the top tier. But on both runs, the sled accelerated down the track faster than other teams.
The U.S. men haven't won a bobsled gold medal since 1948, when Francis Tyler steered his way down the track in St. Moritz, Switzerland. In 2002, the U.S. had a gold in sight but settled for silver and bronze.
Over two runs Friday, crashes mangled six sleds. They including the USA-2 entry driven by John Napier, the 23-year-old Army National Guard sergeant who was still shaking 15 minutes after he wobbled off the track. Teammates from USA-3 rushed down the track as brakeman Chris Fogt extracted himself and began sobbing. Napier, who has been driving a bobsled since he was 9, was ashen.
"It was just one mistake," he said. "But when you're going at 95 mph, if you make a mistake there's no time to catch up. . . . It's more my ego that's bruised. This is the biggest race of my life, and I crashed."
Charles Berkeley, one of Napier's pushers, said he sensed trouble.
"When it gets quiet, then you know something's not right and before you know it, you're on your head," he said. "I knew where we were, so I knew we didn't have far to go."
Napier is nearly three seconds back in 17th place.
USA-3, driven by Mike Kohn, recovered from a poor start in which Jamie Moriarty slipped and started falling headfirst into the sled. Adjusting on the fly, brakeman Nick Cunningham slid to the back of the sled with his back end hanging off as Bill Schuffenhauer grabbed Moriarty to steady him and guide him into place.
Cracked Kohn afterward, "Good interception. We got the ball back for a touchdown."
USA-3 is 1.36 seconds back in 12th place.