PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — On the day the Olympic cauldron was being extinguished in South Korea, the proverbial torch for USA Bobsled was being passed as well.
Steve Langton, probably the best push athlete in the program’s history, took his last ride.
Jean Schaefer, the mother of the late three-time Olympic medalist driver Steven Holcomb, was in the coaches’ box.
Big changes are coming to the U.S. team for the next quadrennial, both on the ice and off, but the final day of the Pyeongchang Olympics showed hope for the future. Olympic rookie Codie Bascue, a Whitehall graduate, led the U.S. on Sunday with a ninth-place finish in the four-man competition, the last race of a year the likes of which no one associated with the American program will want to see ever again.
“This was the craziest year I’ve ever experienced in any sport,” U.S. push athlete Carlo Valdes said. “There was Holcomb’s passing in the beginning, then things kept piling up on us. There’s so many things I don’t want to remember, but I obviously can’t forget.”
Nick Cunningham and his team of Hakeem Abdul-Saboor, Chris Kinney and Sam Michener finished 19th. Justin Olsen and his team of Valdes, Nate Weber and Chris Fogt were 20th — even after having the fourth-best time in the final heat.
“A ninth place, with everything we’ve gone through, I’m happy,” said Bascue, who will likely need several weeks to recover from a left leg injury that he competed with in Pyeongchang. “We gave it our all.”
Langton ends his career with two Olympic medals, both won with Holcomb at the Sochi Games in 2014. For now, they’re bronze. If the Russians who finished ahead of them get the medals taken away — still a possibility in the doping scandal that overshadowed those games and still has some unanswered questions four years later — they’ll be upgraded to silver.
Either way, Langton leaves the U.S. program better than he found it 11 years ago.
“That’s important to me,” he said. “Making a difference, whether it’s bobsled or just life in general, is very important to me. I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to bobsled and leaving it better than I found it, it wasn’t always at the forefront of my mind — but it’s definitely a big-picture goal and something that was important.”
Langton has no desire to coach. He retired after Sochi to experience life in the real world, then returned for the chance to slide with Holcomb again. When Holcomb died unexpectedly last May, Langton stuck it out not just for a third Olympic trip but also to mentor a young team.
So the irony is he’s been coaching this whole time. His sledmates in Pyeongchang — Bascue in the front seat, the talented Evan Weinstock and Sam McGuffie as fellow pushers — were all Olympic rookies, and it wasn’t coincidence that they were paired with Langton for these games. They didn’t win medals, but they saw how a medalist handles the Olympics.
“It’s been an honor,” Weinstock said. “When we come into this sport as rookies, they show us Steve Langton push videos. That’s who we try to mimic.”
Langton recognized the rite of passage. Curt Tomasevicz showed him the ropes when he was an up-and-comer, and Langton did the same in Pyeongchang for Weinstock.
“Evan reminds me a lot of myself in a lot of ways,” Langton said. “What he has going for him is that he’s 26 years old. I think he’s the full package. I haven’t seen somebody like him come on in terms of talent and mindset. He’s a smart kid and he’s very realistic. That’s a tough thing to find in an athlete, especially a bobsledder.”
Cunningham isn’t sure yet about his future. Bascue and Olsen will be back as drivers, and Weber might move to the front seat as well. Langton — who insists he’s done — is already being wooed by teammates for a run at the 2021 world championships in Lake Placid. Valdes will likely take a year off before trying to return. Fogt is going back to his military life full-time, and might have done his last race.
Rebuilding modes always await after Olympics, but Fogt thinks the pieces are in place for success.
“There’s a great future for the U.S. team,” Fogt said. “They will be medal contenders in 2022. There’s no doubt in my mind.”