Part of the prize package that U.S. bobsledding great Steven Holcomb and brakeman Carlo Valdes got for a medal at a World Cup race at St. Moritz a couple years ago was a bottle of fine champagne, which they brought home and decided to save for a special occasion.
They never got around to it.
So when the first of several memorial services celebrating Holcomb's life was over last spring, Valdes brought the bottle to the top of the team's home track at Mount Van Hoevenberg, popped the cork, shook the bottle and sprayed its contents all over the start ramp — doing so with tears in his eyes.
"That was kind of where I made peace with everything," Valdes said. "That was a special moment for me."
Another special moment awaits Valdes on Saturday, when he officially becomes an Olympic bobsledder. He planned on being at the Pyeongchang Games in Holcomb's sled; instead, he will be riding with driver Justin Olsen and fellow push athletes Chris Fogt and Nathan Weber in the four-man event, the final sliding competition of the games.
The U.S. has three sleds in four-man. Codie Bascue will drive with Evan Weinstock, Steve Langton and Sam McGuffie. Nick Cunningham will drive with Hakeem Abdul-Saboor, Christopher Kinney and Sam Michener. The first two heats are Saturday; the final two will come when medals are handed out Sunday, and Valdes is more than ready for the moment.
"It's finally here," he said.
Valdes was Holcomb's primary brakeman last season, and the driver's sudden death last May hit him hard. But Valdes — who is fast, strong and certainly earned his spot on this team — knows that he's in Pyeongchang and now an Olympian largely because of the lessons he learned from Holcomb along the way.
These were almost certainly going to be Holcomb's final Olympics before retirement, and he fully expected to be a contender in Pyeongchang with Valdes.
"I've thought about him a lot, especially when we first got here," Valdes said. "We talked about it the past two, three years, getting to the games and seizing that moment together. It's something we both looked forward to. And now I won't have the chance to share that with him. It's been tough. But we know he's still here with us. We know he wants us to do well."
Valdes was one of the few who has been in Holcomb's room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, where his body was found, since the death. Tests later revealed Holcomb was intoxicated and had taken a sleeping aid on the night that he died. Valdes helped Holcomb's mother and sisters go through the room and pack up his possessions. He was given a few mementos, like a pair of shoes and some golf equipment.
He didn't need any of that to remember his friend. And come Saturday morning, Holcomb's words will resonate in Valdes' head.
"We all have Steve on our mind — especially me," Valdes said. "I just hope we can come out and do well for him. The time I spent with him, that's what is carrying me through all of this. There's still sadness. We'll turn that sadness into motivation. This Saturday, Sunday, you might see some tears. It'll be out of control at that start line. But we're ready."
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