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By Tim Reynolds, AP Sports Writer
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. Olympic bobsledder Steven Holcomb
was speeding down the icy track for a preseason training
run a few weeks ago, when a piece of duct tape tore off
the chassis and whizzed past his helmet.
His teammates weren't bothered. They'd seen it happen dozens
of times. Holcomb, though, was spooked. Until then, he'd
never seen that before.
In a sport that demands razor-sharp hand-eye coordination,
Holcomb excels even with a degenerative eye disease called
keratoconus that makes reading a challenge - say nothing
for steering a bobsled in a snowstorm. "Sometimes,
I really didn't see all that much out there," he said.
Given his success, that's hard to believe. Holcomb is a
national champion, a World Cup star and was the top American
driver at the 2006 Turin Olympics. He navigates slippery
tracks at 80 mph in a sport where tiny mistakes can lead
to disaster. Yet he did all that with vision so blurry that
he couldn't read the big "E" atop an eye chart
from more than 6 feet away.
A $15,000 procedure may have saved Holcomb's vision - plus
could nudge him closer to Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010.
"If he was in the top five in the world before, I
wouldn't be surprised if he's soon to be the top in the
world," said Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler of Beverly Hills,
Calif., the corneal surgeon who developed the procedure
that Holcomb underwent, Holcomb would love to see that.
Keratoconus causes the cornea to bulge outward, causing
blurred vision. In some mild cases, glasses or contacts
can be the answer. In Holcomb's case, neither did the trick.
Lasik didn't work, either; Holcomb tried that in 2000, but
was back in glasses within a year. So after last season,
he decided he'd either find a solution or retire.
"They couldn't make contacts strong enough for me
anymore," Holcomb said. "And since it's a progressive
disease, I had to get a new prescription, a stronger prescription,
every three months. Finally they said, 'You know, we can't
make them any stronger.' So it was the end. For a while,
I thought it was the end."
U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer didn't want to see that
happen. He researched options, found Boxer Wachler, and
sent Holcomb to California to meet the doctor. Holcomb was
deemed a candidate for Visian ICL, or Implantable Collamer
Lens, a 9-minute surgery where a contact is embedded behind
It's permanent, and so far, it's worked for Holcomb.
His vision, once as bad as 20-1000 - which gets defined
as "profound visual impairment" - is now close
to perfect. He sees things on tracks that he never knew
were there before.
"I was part of the FDA approval study for it,"
Holcomb said. "I couldn't wear contacts the day of
the surgery, so they literally had to walk me around the
room. And then they did it, I got up, and just like that,
I was 20-20. It's incredible. I call it an eye-opening experience."
Pun intended, of course.
Holcomb didn't just suffer from keratoconus, but also was
extremely nearsighted. So Boxer Wachler - who has performed
similar procedures before live on national television, plus
has worked with other athletes, most notably Los Angeles
Lakers' guard Derek Fisher - began the process by having
Holcomb undergo what's called C3-R, something that strengthens
the anchors within the cornea and minimizes the bulging
It's relatively new technology and isn't offered by many
eye doctors yet. Boxer Wachler is considered the pioneer
in this sort of work. "We've been doing this for five
years," Boxer Wachler said. "It's not experimental
for us. We call it an off-label procedure."
But because of the costs involved, Holcomb almost decided
not to undergo any procedure. Holcomb isn't a rich man,
by any stretch of the imagination. Bobsledders don't get
into their sport for money; it's rare to find a sled that
turns a profit at the end of a season, no matter how many
races a team wins in a given year. The technology is costly,
the perks are few, and when Holcomb was told how much Visian
ICL would cost, he initially balked at going forward.
"It was every amount of prize money I'd ever won,"
Holcomb said. "So the U.S. Bobsled Federation stepped
up and donated, and the U.S. Olympic Committee stepped up
and donated, and now I hope they can collect on it."
That shouldn't be a problem.
When the World Cup season starts in Germany in a few weeks,
Holcomb will be among the favorites once again. He ended
last season ranked fourth among drivers in two- and four-man
bobsled, and now with his vision no longer a stressful issue,
he can't see any reason why he shouldn't improve on the
"Now that I can see, things are starting to click,"
Holcomb said. "I already could feel out there on the
track. It's like putting a face to a name now. My eyes don't
hurt. My head doesn't hurt. Before, I couldn't do anything.
I couldn't even play catch before. Someone would throw me
something and it'd hit me in the face. Now I can focus on
what's important out there."