By Justin Palmer
LONDON (Reuters) - Steve Holcomb lives and breathes bobsleigh to the extent that he could not imagine doing anything else.
The leader of both the two-man and four-man American teams is passionate about a sport that has made him Olympic champion, but his success has not come without a price.
"Being at the top is lonely, you really have to make a lot of sacrifices that a lot of people are not willing to make," he told Reuters.
"That comes down to my passion - I love bobsledding and I make a lot of sacrifices and I can justify those sacrifices because I love what I do.
"My motivation is my passion for the sport. I know a lot of guys, they do this because they are good athletes and they are successful at it, but it's not necessarily what they love doing.
"You have to love what you are doing and when you do you put your heart and soul into it and that takes it to the next level. That's something a lot of people don't have."
Holcomb piloted the American four-man bobsleigh to gold at the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, the first time in 62 years for the United States and one of the feelgood stories of a games overshadowed by the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.
His autobiography 'But Now I See' tells the story of his journey from "blindness to Olympic gold", revealing his battle to overcome a degenerative eye disease and depression.
Some athletes are afforded the freedom of their city for sporting achievement, others have streets named after them or a stand or whole stadium. Holcomb has a treatment for degenerative eye disorder keratoconus named in honor after him - Holcomb C3 R - after his vision was restored to 20/20.
The 33-year-old from Park City, Utah, believes he has evolved into a better driver now than when he won gold.
"I'm still learning. I'm a better driver now, I've learned a lot about myself. I'm the fastest and strongest than I've been in a few years which I'm happy about.
"Testing these new sleds... learned a lot about driving... different ways, different sensations and ideas and I think that's taken my driving to the next level."
The four-man Night Train bobsleigh that triumphed in 2010 has evolved into Night Train 2, designed by a company run by former NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.
The two-man sled is the product of BMW technology.
"It's a challenge because just like cars, they drive differently," he said of the lighter carbon-fiber sleds. "They have their own feeling. We've worked hard to make them as close as possible to the same thing."
Holcomb met with instant success in his new sleds when he won both opening World Cup events in Calgary in late November, the first time in seven years that a driver has swept the opening two-man and four-man races.
He has remained perfect through the first half of the season, chalking up a seventh successive victory in Lake Placid to leave his rivals pondering how he can be beaten.
However, he feels he could be at a disadvantage when the Olympics come round in Sochi in February.
Holcomb said the Sochi track, located near the village of Krasnaya Polyana and which has three "negative" slopes, was "mild" compared to Whistler.
"I like it, it's a good track, it's challenging but it's not fast for one.
"It's easier to get down, you're not going to have a lot of crashes but the problem is it's not easy to get down quickly.
"Whistler was technical and fast. Sochi is just technical but not necessarily the whole way."
Because of this, Holcomb said there was now more of a "level playing field" in the battle for gold.
"It's a little bit of a disadvantage to me and the other experienced drivers. Whistler separated the experienced drivers from the less experienced drivers... if you look at the (2010) results, all drivers that had been around for a long time were on the podium.
"Right now, with the news sleds we have there is a little bit more pressure but at the same time I won my gold medal and at the end of the day, in Sochi, if I'm not champion I can an still walk away as a gold medallist.
"Regardless of my result I'm going to continue bobsledding because I love doing it."
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)