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Olympic bobsledder overcomes sight-stealing disease, takes bronze in Sochi

Bronze medalists Steven Holcomb (L) and Steven Langton of the United States celebrate on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men's Two-Man Bobsleigh on day 11 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Medals Plaza in Sochi, Russia.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

A bobsledder steered his two-man team to a bronze medal Monday at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Quite an amazing feat in its own right, but it's even more amazing because just a few short years ago, this bobsledder had a severe visual impairment.

In 2000, Steven Holcomb was diagnosed with keratoconus, which is a vision disorder that causes the cornea to weaken and bulge outward, thus making it difficult to focus without the aid of glasses or contact lenses.Holcomb, a 33-year-old native of Park City, Utah, saw his vision deteriorate rapidly in just seven years, according to an interview he did with CBS News.

"It took about seven years until I went from 20/20 to 20/1000," said Holcomb.

Holcomb managed to adapt his bobsledding technique as his vision deteriorated, learning to "drive by feel." He also wore contacts that corrected his vision up to 20/60. But in 2007 his vision had deteriorated so much that contacts weren't enough.

A dozen specialists told Holcomb that he needed a cornea transplant. The transplant would have taken Holcomb out of bobsledding for at least two years, and his corneas would have been so fragile that bobsledding after the transplant could be dangerous.

Holcomb thought his bobsledding days were over. "I'm gonna have to retire from the sport," said Holcomb.

Holcomb went through this challenging time in his life alone. He hadn't told anyone about his deteriorating vision. He withdrew from friends and family, fell into a deep depression, and attempted suicide.

After his failed suicide attempt, Holcomb gained support from his friends and family. One day his coach came to him and told him of a specialist that he thought could repair his corneas without a cornea transplant. Despite his reservations, Holcomb visited the specialist, Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler. Thanks to the procedure, Holcomb's vision was then able to be corrected to 20/20 with contacts, and the deterioration was halted.

Since Holcomb had adapted to having low vision, adjusting to having vision again proved difficult.

"I went from being out of the sport because I couldn't see, to being back in the sport, but I can't do it because I CAN see," said Holcomb.

After a year of adjusting, Holcomb won the first world championship in 50 years for the U.S. in four-man bobsled, and won an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver two years after that.

Holcomb and his teammate, Steven Langton, gave the U.S. its first two-man bobsled medal in 62 years.

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