As a former sports columnist and reporter at Schenectady’s The Daily Gazette for a quarter century, I covered my fair share of Olympians. In 1984, I wrote about Niskayuna native Jeff Blatnick’s remarkable gold medal bid in wrestling—still one of the greatest and most emotional sporting moments in Upstate New York history. I’ve written more words than any other journalist in America about four-time US judo Olympian Jason Morris of Burnt Hills, who was a silver medalist at the Barcelona Summer Olympic Games in 1992. And I’ve been to the Lake Placid and Montréal Olympics as a spectator, and covered the Salt Lake City Games as a Gazette reporter in 2002.
In short, I’ve written dozens of stories about—and snapped myriad photographs of—Olympic stars-in-the-making and medalists from the Capital Region. One such athlete that I’ve had my eye on for the last few years is 23-year-old bobsled driver Codie Bascue, who’s representing the US at the PyeongChang, South Korea, Winter Olympic Games this month.
Last November, I followed Bascue to the bobsled/skeleton World Cup in Lake Placid—the site of the “Miracle on Ice”—where he showed me why he’s one of Team USA’s most promising young athletes.
Bascue, a native of Whitehall, NY, a small town near the Vermont border, isn’t only a throwback, but also a contradiction. Unbelievably so, he’s the youngest and most experienced member of Team USA’s Olympic bobsled team. In an era where nearly all of the nation’s bobsled athletes are recruited to the sport in their 20s from collegiate football and track-and-field programs across the US, Bascue is a locally grown talent, like the many Upstate New Yorkers who once dominated the American team.
His career, remarkably now in its 15th season, began when he was in elementary school. That unusual early exposure came through the Whitehall Central School District’s bobsled club, which was started by his grandfather, Alan Bascue. The Whitehall students, members of the only scholastic club of its kind in the country, made the 84-mile trip to the Mount Van Hoevenberg sliding track near Lake Placid on Sundays. “I started then and fell in love with it,” Bascue says.
That same kid with potential has grown up to be an Olympian. He’s the pilot of the USA-1 sled, replacing the legendary Steven Holcomb, the Olympic and world champion, who died unexpectedly at 37 last May. Bascue found success last year in his fourth season on the World Cup circuit, and last month, officially made the Olympic bobsled squad, heading into PyeongChang.
Well before the news broke of his making the Olympic team, near the midpoint of the seven-stop World Cup season, Bascue acknowledged to me that he was looking forward to the Winter Games. “I’m just really excited,” he said. “I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never really been to that stage. I guess I’ll find out when it gets here.”
While Bascue’s skill as a driver has been evident for years, there was some question about whether he had the combination of genetics and dedication to become a capable contributor to the critically important push starts. After what he describes as a disappointing 2016–17 season, he shed 15 lbs and spent the summer trying to improve his speed and strength. The off-season work paid off for the 5’9’’, 205-lb driver in November when he earned gold, silver and bronze medals—the first podium finishes of his World Cup career—in races at Lake Placid and Park City, UT.
“Over the last few years, Codie has really developed into that explosive athlete that we’ve been looking and hoping for,” says Team USA Bobsled Head Coach Brian Shimer. “With his sprint times and the strength and power he has developed, he’s now one of the stronger guys on the team. Still being young, he could certainly be USA Bobsled’s next franchise athlete, who we see kind of carry Team USA into the next several Olympic Games.”
Shimer, a college football player from Florida who became a push athlete and then a bronze medal-winning driver in 2002, told me that Bascue was having a breakthrough season at just the right time. “Certainly, I believe this year, he can vie for a medal. It’s certainly possible,” Shimer said. “He’s still a young pilot, but he has been and will be competing against other pilots who don’t have as much experience in the front seat as he has had early in his career.”
In 1988, 32-year-old Alan Bascue followed through on his interest in bobsled racing and began what turned into four years competing in club events at Mount Van Hoevenberg. A decade later, the now-retired Whitehall School District sport and transportation supervisor decided to try to organize a bobsled club team for the district. His grandson was among the 35 to 40 students who signed up that first winter. Alan Bascue wanted to introduce children from his town to the sport he loved and provide a feeder system for the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation’s junior program. “When I was sliding, I noticed how the other countries did it with their athletes,” he said. “We had no real recruitment or training program. My thought when I did it was, you’ve got to start younger.”
Alan Bascue also hoped to revive regional interest in bobsledding. From the 1930s into the 1970s, the bulk of the American national team roster was made up of athletes from the Adirondacks and Capital Region. Since 1988, the last Olympics for Brent Rushlaw of Saranac Lake and Matt Roy of Lake Placid, there have been only two drivers raised and trained in Upstate New York: Chuck Leonowicz of Scotia in 1992 and John Napier of Schenectady in 2010. Napier’s father, Bill, was a bobsledder and, like Bascue, started driving in peewee events when he was in grade school.
In the early days of the Whitehall program, Alan Bascue told reporters writing about the club that it might produce an Olympic team member someday. Bascue had no way of knowing that it would be his own grandson. “I think the biggest thing is the adrenaline rush I get every time I go down the track,” he says. “I got the same adrenaline rush my first trip ever when I was eight that I still get today. It hasn’t really ever seemed to fade, and I think that’s what I love about the sport most.”
As for the Olympic stories I’ve covered, Codie Bascue is right up there near the top.