Steven Holcomb: 'There is always hope'

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
6:36
PM ET

Five years ago, bobsled driver Steven Holcomb was deeply depressed. His U.S. four-man bobsled team was peaking and had a strong chance to win the first American gold medal in the event since 1948 at the 2010 Olympics. But despite devoting a decade of his life to that goal, Holcomb could not focus on it. He held a dark secret not even his teammates or coach knew.

He was going blind.

"I was losing my vision quite rapidly," Holcomb recalled in a phone interview. "I was realizing what my life was about to become. I was at the peak of my career and it was all about to come crashing down. My vision became so bad it was a safety issue. I was withdrawn, I wouldn't come out of my room.

[+] EnlargeSteven Holcomb
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesSteven Holcomb was part of the four-man bobsled team that won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

"My coach [Brian Shimer] said, 'These guys are working their butts off for you, and you're just going through the motions.' I told him, 'I'm going blind, I'm going to have to quit.'"

Holcomb had keratoconus, a disease that leaves one out of every four victims blind without a cornea transplant. Holcomb's vision had already declined to 20-600 -- without the strongest corrective lenses, he could not recognize a person sitting across the table. He could get the transplant, but that would end his career due to the constant jarring that comes with driving a bobsled.

But as Holcomb writes in his new book, "But Now I See," he was able to continue his career. After a dozen eye specialists told Holcomb that a cornea transplant was his only hope, Dr. Boxer Wachler provided hope in a revolutionary treatment called C3-R that did not require invasive procedure. The treatment worked so well that not only did Holcomb continue his bobsledding career and win a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics, but the procedure is now known as the Holcomb C3-R, just as ulnar collateral ligament replacement is known as Tommy John surgery.

"Keratoconus is a lot more common than I ever realized going in," Holcomb said. "I thought I had some crazy rare disease. ... I've met so many people who have it. Two other people on the team have it and one had the same procedure. It's very common and this procedure stops it and is a cure.

"It's kind of one of the reasons for putting the book out. I wanted people to know there is a solution. It's not covered by insurance so people don't know about it -- it's not as widespread as it should be."

Blindness wasn't the only issue for Holcomb. He also suffered from depression, but was able to overcome that, as well. It wasn't easy, but he did it.

"There is always hope. Do not give up," he said. "There is always hope and always help. I kept everything a secret. I had depression and I kept it a secret and never let anyone know. When I did, that was when my life changed and it took off from there."

Holcomb is looking for more gold in Sochi at the 2014 Olympics, and he has a good chance. His team recently returned to Whistler, site of their 2010 gold, and won a World Cup race there.

"I would say that's a pretty decent place to hang out," Holcomb said of Whistler. "I love that track for obvious reasons. Winning a gold medal there brings up its value, and there is just a lot of beautiful scenery there."

And now he can see it all.


Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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