Shaking off the loss of a legend, Sam McGuffie and his USA Bobsled teammates prepare for the 2018 Olympics
As he stood on the podium in Pyeongchang,
South Korea in March clutching a crystal globe signifying a third place finish
in the four-man bobsled 2017 World Cup standings, Sam McGuffie had every reason
to imagine himself in a similar position less than a year later when the Winter
Olympics return to this same venue.
In less than two years, the former Rice standout had worked himself into the brakeman's job on America's top sled, piloted by the legendary Steve Holcomb, a two-time Olympic medalist whose success had vaulted a sport into a greater national recognition.
McGuffie, the one-time viral sensation for his high school exploits who dazzled on both the football field and track at Rice, was now one third of a new team of explosive athletes whose main function was to blast the new BMW sled from a standing start and then settle in behind the two-time Olympic medalist who then used his vast experience to guide them through the twists, turns and bumps towards the finish line in a sport where dreams of medals can be crushed by thousands of a second.
Over the course of his second season with the team, McGuffie found himself becoming more accustomed to the experiences of blasting down the course, to the point where he could instantly recognize the quality of the run without looking to the clock for their time.
"In the beginning it was all a lot getting shaken around the whole way down and always felt like I was riding in a crash as we went down the hill," McGuffie recalled. "But now I've learned what a clean run feels like. It's very subtle because on some of the courses, a clean run does not mean you make it down without a tap here and a tap there. You need those taps to set you up for the next turn."
He was also charged to deliver more than just a blast of explosive energy before jumping on board. As the brakeman, he was also tasked with bringing in the push bars used for the start as well as applying the brakes at the end of the run.
He picked up a pair of medals during the year, winning a silver medal at the Lake Placid World Cup stop in December and a bronze in Igls, Austria in February. Both medals represented Holcomb's first in the four-man event since 2014, a year that saw him win the USA's first Olympic medal in the two-man event in 62 years.
"We were on such a high at the Worlds with our performances," McGuffie said. "It was a great way to end the year and I couldn't wait to get back and start training for next year."
"These guys on the team have heard stories about our winning seasons and it's almost like a myth to them, so to have them see the crystal globe and see it come to fruition in front of them and know that we can win is huge," Holcomb said at the time. "I hope it carries over into next season as we ramp up for the Olympic season."
Nothing in the future was assured, as the selection process for the 2018 national team--from which the eventual lineup for the Olympics would be chosen--would include the return of several past Olympians in addition to the latest hopefuls from the same summer combines that McGuffie used to eventually earn a spot on the podium.
What was assured was the US team had closed strongly to end the 2017 season. Holcomb had driven the US sleds to third place finishes in the four-man and combined events and second in the two-man event, ending a year that began with him struggling and contemplating retirement with a surge of momentum that seemed to point to potential medals in South Korea in 2018.
But that surge of expectation took a sudden and tragic swerve off the track less than two months later when Holcomb passed away at age 37. Suddenly the man who was the face of the sport and the core of a team's hopes and aspirations for the coming Olympics was gone.
Less than two months later, McGuffie and his teammates found themselves back at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York for a week of team building exercises and media training. The focus was on preparing for the 2018 season, but also on continuing to come together after the loss of their undisputed leader.
"It's been hard on the whole team and we've all been on an emotional roller coaster," he said. "Steve was so experienced and knew every quirk on every track. We all knew if we pushed strong, Steve would always take care of the rest. We felt that way going into the Worlds last year."
Now the team must spend the run-up to the Olympics trying to identify its top driver in addition to finding the best combination of athletes to join him in pursuit of the podium.
"Justin Olsen was a gold medalist pushing for Steve and has so much talent as a driver," McGuffie noted. "It's just a sport where you can't substitute for the experience. It took Steve five years of driving to start getting results and Justin is in his second year. We all believe in Justin, Codie Bascue, who has been driving sleds since he was 12 and Nick Cunningham, who is two-time Olympian."
From the outside, the combination of driver and his teammates might appear to be something that can be as simple as computing start times and putting the fastest three behind the driver. But McGuffie knows from his own experiences that the reality is far less defined.
"It's all about finding the best combinations and a lot of what seems to make sense on paper does not translate to the track. There is a lot of synchronization that needs to come together and it's kind of kooky how the teams line up. It's hard to explain how it comes together, but there is a feeling you get when you know you are in synch with a group of guys."
The hype for the Olympics will continue to build over the coming months as the US team completes offseason training and the 2018 team is named. It then moves on to the proving grounds of the World Cup circuit and the eventual announcement of the US team for South Korea.
McGuffie's success and experience are countered by the knowledge of the level of competition ahead of him in order to hear his name called as a member of the team. Each is driven by their own desire for success, but also by the determination to not let Holcomb's passing derail their pursuit.
"We all take it on ourselves that what he'd want from all of us is to go hard. Steve was all about America and the opportunity to wear that USA on his back while he was driving a sled. I always felt pride to wear the name of my school or team when I competed, but to put that USA on is one of the coolest things I have done in my life."