KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Alexander Zubkov won’t travel alone in his drive toward possible Olympic history. He’ll carry three large teammates crammed inside his bobsled – and the weight of a nation.
Russia is counting on him.
Steven Holcomb is counting on him to crumble.
Zubkov, capitalizing on his intimate knowledge of the Sanki Sliding Center’s icy mountainside track, outclassed the world’s best drivers to easily win the two-man competition in these games. The dominating victory – the closest sled was 0.66 seconds back – was the 39-year-old Zubkov’s first since 2011 in an international two-man event.
It raised his stature but also intensified the pressure on Zubkov to win again, this time in four-man, the signature slide in bobsled. And, there’s a possibility President Vladimir Putin will be there to see if Zubkov can save some face after the Russian hockey team’s flameout.
The heat is on Zubkov.
That’s fine with Holcomb.
“It’s kind of taken a lot of the pressure off us,” said Holcomb, the defending Olympic four-man champion, who ended a 62-year medal drought in two-man for the U.S. by winning bronze here. “It’s adding pressure to him because people are like, `You were so fast in two-man in front of your home country, you better win.’”
The mind games are officially open.
In redirecting the spotlight toward Zubkov, Holcomb may be trying to see if he can make an experienced driver he considers “a friendly rival” crack. It’s suddenly Zubkov, not Holcomb, who has become the man to beat and will have to be on his game during two runs Saturday and two more Sunday.
The same goes for Holcomb, slowed the past few days by a strained calf muscle, an injury that prevented him from running at top speed during six training runs.
After Friday’s two practice runs, Holcomb said his calf is “about 75″ and hopes it’s 100 percent OK by the time he, Curt Tomasevicz, Steve Langton and Chris Fogt, jump in USA-1 and try to win it all again.
Four years ago in Vancouver, Holcomb drove his “Night Train” sled to gold, the first for an American four-man team since 1948. Tomasevicz and Langton, his two-man partner, are back with him again and Holcomb believes the close-knit group can draw on the experience from that magical evening.
“We’ve been there, we’ve done that,” said Holcomb, from Park City, Utah. “I think that’s the hardest part. I didn’t win a medal my first four years driving. But once you win that first race, you understand how to win, and it’s like, `Oh, OK, that’s how you win a race and it just kind of comes naturally.’
“We know how to do it. We know what it takes and as long as we all execute we’ll be on track.”
Zubkov, though, has home-ice advantage and that meant everything in two-man. Where others failed to find speed, Zubkov picked up velocity. He knows where there are hidden time treasures under the ice.
“There’s certain lines through the corners that a lot of the teams won’t be able to do that we can do,” said Pierre Lueders, a two-time Olympic medalist from Canada, hired by Russia as a coach. “There’s some very specific turning points that are key to making speed. Everybody focuses on corner 5, but maybe they’re focusing on the wrong part of it.
“It’s not my job to tell people where to go.”
Zubkov was either first or second in four training runs, but skipped his last two.
Holcomb and the other teams have spent the past few days studying video of Zubkov’s run, looking for any detail that might help them catch him.
Germany’s team may have found some answers.
After finishing eighth, 11th and 15th in two-man – their poorest showing since 1956 – the Germans had the three fastest sleds during the fifth training run and Germany-3 and Germany-2 were at the top in the sixth with Germany-1 driver Maxilmilian Arndt sitting out the last session.
Canada decided to make a late switch with their teams, pulling the three brakeman from Chris Spring’s Canada-1 sled and putting them with up-and-coming driver Justin Kripps in Canada-3.
None of the tinkering with runners or swapping push athletes will matter if Zubkov drives the way he did in two-man.
Lueders, however, knows there’s one driver capable of making the Russian sweat: Holcomb.
He may not have the physique of an Olympian, but Holcomb’s driving skills, along with the team behind him, make the Americans the biggest threat to the Russians’ plans for a party.
“When a guy’s won two medals at the Olympics, you don’t count him out,” Lueders said. “We actually mentioned his name specifically yesterday that just because someone’s not pushing or they’re slow in training means absolutely nothing.”