SOCHI, Russia — If you want to know what happened to the famous Night Train that won gold in Vancouver, Canada, look to USA-2 in Sochi on Saturday, when the four-man event begins. That’s the physical sled. Nick Cunningham will drive it.
If you want to know what happened to the famously cohesive foursome that pushed that sled to victory and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated for snapping a 62-year Olympic medal drought in men’s bobsled, that’s more complicated — and, for one member, not so pleasant.
Steve Holcomb is still America’s top driver – piloting a new sled in Sochi called Night Train II (aka USA-1). In the No. 2 seat will be Holcomb’s 2010 brakeman, Curt Tomasevicz. In the No. 3 seat will be Steve Langton, who seamlessly replaced Steve Mesler after the former University of Florida decathlete retired in 2010. But the final member of the old Night Train, Justin Olsen, will be competing against Holcomb, in the exact same sled that put his name in sports history.
The change wasn’t Olsen’s choice. He was unceremoniously bumped.
In June 2013, during the final step of a hill-running workout in Lake Placid, N.Y., Olsen felt something wrong in the left side of his groin. He treated it with rehabilitation, but he couldn’t run for two months. When he started training again, in August, the bobsled teams were gelling and while his start times were getting faster, he was clearly not at his late-summer peak.
Olsen opted not to compete at the push championships, and according to U.S. coach Brian Shimer, “In the meantime, we had some athletes that came in and set some track records at the ice house in Calgary that deserved to push on USA-1 and Justin may have had an opportunity to come back and gain his spot back.”
Only it never happened.
When the team trials were held that fall, Holcomb had a bye so instead of Holcomb selecting his own athletes as drivers usually do for team trials, it was left to the head coach.
“I selected the best team that came out of our evaluation,” Shimer said.
“Once that team was formed,” Shimer said, “They went into the World Cup season with the fastest push in the first half [of the season], winning gold in every race.”
“When I was told I wasn’t on the Night Train” for the 2013-14 season, Olsen said, “I was frustrated with myself and the process. Initially, I felt like I was written off. I’ve asked many times, ‘When will I have a chance?’ And they say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Asked about the change in late September, Holcomb reiterated, “I didn’t pick my team. There’s criteria. One is driver’s input. I’m a huge advocate of keeping my team together.”
But, according to USA Bobsled, Olsen hasn’t pushed Holcomb’s sled – either in time trials or competition – since Olsen returned from injury in August.
In Sochi, Olsen declined to comment on the changes in the Night Train. Meanwhile, Chris Fogt has replaced Olsen in USA-1 and will be pulling the brakes for Holcomb. Olsen will be in the No. 2 seat in USA-2 right behind Cunningham — in the same seat and physical sled as in 2010.
But only time (measured in hundredths of seconds) will tell if Holcomb’s 2014 Night Train is the right train.