Steve Langton plays new Games
Melrose, Mass., native got off the couch and earned a spot on the U.S. bobsled team
Steve Langton always was an elite athlete. He played forward on his soccer teams growing up in Melrose, Mass., played shooting guard and small forward on his basketball teams, and caught and pitched on his baseball teams. He sprinted and jumped on his high school and college track teams -- "I was dying to run track in college," he said -- and even threw the shot put at Northeastern University when his Huskies needed a few extra points at a track meet.
Pushing a bobsled, though, involves a lot more than raw athletic ability.
"You could take any three NFL guys, the best in the league, and put them in the sled, and I guarantee USA I, II or III would push considerably faster than they would," Langton said this week by phone from Vancouver, British Columbia, where the Winter Olympics will kick off Friday. "It takes a year or two to understand the sport and understand what you're doing with the sled."
Langton watched the Winter Games from home four years ago, paying particular attention to the bobsled, just as he did growing up. He'll get a better view of the proceedings this time. Two-man bobsled heats start Feb. 20, with medal runs Feb. 21, and four-man bobsled heats start Feb. 26, with medal runs the next day. Langton will race in both events with driver John Napier, one of the world's elite drivers.
Langton finished his indoor and outdoor track career at Northeastern in 2005, placing among the top five in the 55-meter dash and the long jump at the America East indoor championships. After he graduated in 2006, he took a job working with subcontractors for his dad's land-development company. It was a job he appreciated, but it wasn't a job he particularly enjoyed.
"I don't want to say I was in a rut, but I definitely wasn't happy," he said. "My entire life, I had been Steve the athlete, and I had a tough time not identifying myself as an athlete, so I searched for another avenue. Bobsled had obviously left a lasting impression on me, the speed and the intensity of the sport. It was always the one event at the Olympics I was dying to watch every four years."
"Steve was the strongest athlete in school, and that's including football and all the other sports," said Sherman Hart, the track and field coach at Northeastern. "He was very dedicated and extremely talented. I could put him in the high jump, and he'd go score in the high jump."
Almost on a whim, Langton reached out to Steven Holcomb, the driver of the USA II bobsled that placed sixth at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. He heard back a couple of months later from Brian Shimer, now the coach of the U.S. bobsled team. Shimer invited Langton to an NFL draft-style combine at the U.S. Olympic facility in Lake Placid, N.Y.
A couple of months after that, Langton took his first trip down a hill in a 1,300-pound bobsled.
"The first time down, I thought something was wrong with the sled," he said. "It's not anything like you see on TV. It's loud. It's violent."
But Langton had made a vow to himself that he would stick with the sport even if he hated the sensation of flying down the track -- a sensation he eventually grew to enjoy. The speed and strength he had honed his whole life made him a natural. He just had to put in the work to learn the technique. He also had to recover from hip surgery, which he underwent almost 18 months ago to fix an issue that might have cost him an Olympic bid this winter.
Langton first pushed from the side of a four-man sled in spring 2009, winning a gold medal with Napier at the America's Cup in Lake Placid. He'll push from the right side and sit third in line on Napier's USA II sled in the four-man race in Vancouver.
"It's all about how to run with the sled, how to load in the sled, all to maximize velocity," he said. "Even just the initial hit on the sled is very technical. Coming off the line is very important in terms of final start time. It's essential that those other three guys hit the sled at the exact same time with their knees low. Certain technical parts of it are essential. Whenever you're not applying force to the sled, those are thousandths of seconds that you're not gaining." The same goes for the two-man sled, a lighter version with only a driver and a brakeman. Langton doesn't have any extra duties as the brakeman behind Napier in the race. Only when the race is finished does he actually apply the brakes and bring the sled to a stop.
"People ask, 'Is it tough knowing how to brake on the track?'" Langton said. "But I won't touch the brakes until we're through the finish line."
The driver has quite a bit to do with the success of the team. Langton has spent most of his short bobsled career working with one of the best in Napier, who wasn't even 8 years old when his bobsledding parents introduced him to their favorite sport. But those in the back of the sled aren't finished once they've loaded up.
"You're not sitting there at the mercy of gravity," Langton said. "You can't be rigid. You have to be like water in a glass. It's very important to know the track and to know where you are at all times so you can move with the track in the sled."
Four years ago, Langton was settling into his couch to watch the Winter Olympics the way he has every four years for his entire life. In Vancouver, though, he'll get to participate in the real thing. He spent a week in San Diego and a week in Park City, Utah, before making the trek to Vancouver this past weekend. He moved into the Olympic Village at Whistler on Tuesday, three days before the Olympics officially begin.
"Words cannot describe what myself and, I'm sure, my teammates are going through," he said. "It's unlike anything I've ever experienced before. It's surreal to able to participate in something this grand."
Brian MacPherson is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.