- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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WHISTLER, British Columbia -- For months, the USA I bobsled team of Steven Holcomb, Steve Mesler, Justin Olsen and Curt Tomasevicz has been saying it believed it was the team to beat in the Olympic four-man bobsled competition.
Olsen, in particular, repeated the refrain, convinced his position did not add pressure to a team trying to break a 62-year gold-medal drought for the United States. Olsen held to his position even though the great German bobsledder Andre Lange would be retiring at the end of these Olympics and desperately wanted yet another gold medal for his trophy case.
USA I was the top-ranked team in the world, Olsen reasoned, and thus an Olympic victory would be nothing more than a continuation of what it had done all year.
On a terrifying day of racing where six sleds crashed -- including the USA II sled piloted by John Napier, whose sled skidded to the finish upside down -- USA I completed the first two heats of the four-man bobsled competition with a 0.40 lead with two heats remaining on Saturday, justifying Olsen's confidence and putting the United States halfway toward the elusive gold medal.
"If you asked Curt, he'd say I'm the cockiest person on the team. I don't think that there's anything wrong with being cocky if you back it up," Olsen said. "Seeing how we trained this summer, when we got together in training sessions, I was blown away by the numbers we put up. We all escalated from the year before. We all got better. We all started pushing better.
"So, to come out this season and say we're the team to beat, I didn't feel like it was being cocky," Olsen said. "I felt confident enough in our abilities to say that. I wouldn't say it just to run my mouth. That's not my thing."
USA I began the competition with a blistering, course-record run of 50.89 seconds to start matters .23 seconds ahead after the first run, and then added to its lead by breaking its own course record on the second run at 50.86 seconds.
In between, the fast course was pelted with a driving sleet that further impaired drivers. Sleds from Great Britain, Slovakia, Russia, Austria and Japan also crashed in addition to USA II.
The Americans lead two formidable sleds, Canada I driven by Lyndon Rush and Lange's Germany 1 sled, which was in a surprising third place.
Tomasevicz, the USA I brakeman, cautioned he and his mates have accomplished nothing. Mesler recalled a story that underscored his attitude.
"On this track, anything can happen," Mesler said. "Last year in Lake Placid, we were in almost the exact same situation and again, we were on a track where almost anything can happen, so we're going to go to bed tonight content. I'm going to feel a lot better than I did when I went to bed last night, but at the same time, not as good as I'm hoping I'm going to be tomorrow night."
Holcomb, the laconic USA I driver, said his boys were going to play "Rock Band" on the Nintendo Wii and get a good night's sleep.
"It's been going pretty well. We had a good day, obviously. Two good pushes," Holcomb said. "Those guys are the best push crew on the hill. It may not show in the start time itself, but their key is accelerating the sled down the track. We'll be a couple-hundredths behind at the start and then a couple-hundredths ahead at the next split. That's where we get our time. The sled is running well."
The USA I team is in the unique position of, thus far, doing what it said it was going to do. The results of the sliding sports have been somewhat disappointing for the two U.S. federations, especially following the changes to the start in luge. As much discussion as there has been about the dangers of the track and the number of runs the Canadians have had compared with their competition, USA I attacked the track as if it owned it.
Part of the reason was Holcomb and Tomasevicz have race-day experience on the track by virtue of racing in the two-man competition, where they finished sixth. Another reason is this team has been on a roll for months and the venue doesn't seem to matter as much.
"It's just better having two more guys in the sled with us," Tomasevicz said. "For some reason, Holcomb and I feel more comfortable in the four-man. We just have better results."
But, Tomasevicz added, there is one more day of racing, two more heats.
"Yes, we're halfway there," he said. "Halfway."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
While some may consider the USA I team to be a cocky bunch, it has the stats to back it up. Case in point: the Americans' lead heading into Saturday's final two heats.