As his sight deteriorated, he swallowed pills – only to awaken with a new outlook
Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP

As a mysterious ailment plunged him toward blindness and depression, one night in 2007 Olympic bobsledder Steven Holcomb washed down 73 pills with Jack Daniels, hoping for an endless sleep. Then something strange happened.

“I woke the next morning, realizing what I had done, and decided I needed help to fight it,” Holcomb, 33, of Park City, Utah, tells PEOPLE.

A few months later he underwent a then-experimental procedure that accomplished what 12 specialists couldn’t. Special eye drops and a UV light, combined with surgically implanted contact lenses, restored the sight he’d been losing to what was ultimately diagnosed as cornea-thinning keratoconus.

“I was literally seeing the world in a whole new way,” he says, though notes that now overwhelmed with sight he had to relearn driving, which he had increasingly done by feel, to win gold on his four-man sled at Vancouver.

Going into Sochi with high hopes, Holcomb sought this time to medal in two events: the two-man and four-man races.

On Monday night, he and Steve Langton made history by winning the bronze medal in two-man bobsledding, the first Olympic medal by an American sled in the event since 1952.

By now, 62 must be Holcomb’s favorite number. His four-man gold medal at the Vancouver Games also snapped a 62-year U.S. drought in that race.

He’s next hoping to for a golden repeat when he competes later this week in the four-man event.

“I realized that God had a bigger purpose for me,” he says. “It wasn’t my time. I had more to do in this world.”