A week before his death, Olympic bobsledding sensation Steven Holcomb sat down with PEOPLE and spoke about his passion for the sport that made him famous — and the “deep, dark night” that almost claimed his life in 2007.
At the time, Holcomb was beginning to make a name for himself as a bobsledder, when his vision began to deteriorate from the degenerative eye disease keratoconus. Depressed by the prospect that his career was over before it had gotten started, he gulped whiskey and downed 73 sleeping pills one night in his hotel room, but miraculously survived.
“It was like winning my first gold medal when I woke up that next morning,” Holcomb, 37, said in what turned out to be one of his final interviews when he came to Los Angeles to promote the 2018 Winter Olympics on April 27. “The first thing I remember thinking is, ‘I shouldn’t be awake. This shouldn’t be happening.'”
As reality sunk in and it became clear that he’d survived his attempt at suicide, he couldn’t shake the realization that “there’s something else that I’m here to do.”
Not long afterward, he learned of an experimental procedure – which has since been renamed in his honor – that saved his eyesight and allowed him to keep competing. Three years later at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Holcomb piloted a four-man bobsled that won America’s first gold medal in the sport in over six decades.
Looking back on the experience, he believes that his time spent navigating a sled at over 90 mph while being “legally blind” honed his skills in ways that might not otherwise be possible. “As my vision deteriorated, I was actually becoming more successful because I learned to drive by feel and not by visual,” he said. “It was kind of like a silver lining and it made me the bobsledder that I am today.”
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Over the past decade, Holcomb has won five world titles, six World Cup championships and two bronze medals at the 2014 Sochi games in the two-man and four-man bobsled. Besides traveling the world competing, he was also passionate about getting the word out about the procedure, now known as Holcomb C3-R – which he credits with saving his eyesight.
“I still get emails every week from people reaching out, wanting to know more about it,” he said. “It’s just incredible and the more people we can reach out to and teach about it, the more people we can save.”
When Holcomb was found dead in his dorm room on May 6 at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., he was vying to make the team for what would have been his fourth Olympics — to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February 2018. (A preliminary toxicology report released on May 7 indicates that a possible cause of death may have been pulmonary congestion.)
“I think we can go back and do better than we did in Sochi (where he won two bronze medals),” he said. “My driving is getting better than it ever has been and everything is starting to come together again right in time for the Olympics.”