KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Alexander Zubkov won't travel alone in his drive toward possible Olympic history. He'll carry three large teammates crammed inside his bobsled — and the weight of a nation.
Russia is counting on him.
Steven Holcomb is counting on him to crumble.
Zubkov, capitalizing on his intimate knowledge of the Sanki Sliding Center's icy mountainside track, outclassed the world's best drivers to easily win the two-man competition in these games. The dominating victory — the closest sled was 0.66 seconds back — was the 39-year-old Zubkov's first since 2011 in an international two-man event.
It raised his stature but also intensified the pressure on Zubkov to win again, this time in four-man, the signature slide in bobsled. And, there's a possibility President Vladimir Putin will be there to see if Zubkov can save some face after the Russian hockey team's flameout.
The heat is on Zubkov.
That's fine with Holcomb.
"It's kind of taken a lot of the pressure off us," said Holcomb, the defending Olympic four-man champion, who ended a 62-year medal drought in two-man for the U.S. by winning bronze here. "It's adding pressure to him because people are like, 'You were so fast in two-man in front of your home country, you better win.'"
The mind games are officially open.
In redirecting the spotlight toward Zubkov, Holcomb may be trying to see if he can make an experienced driver he considers "a friendly rival" crack. It's suddenly Zubkov, not Holcomb, who has become the man to beat and will have to be on his game during two runs Saturday and two more Sunday.
The same goes for Holcomb, slowed the past few days by a strained calf muscle, an injury that prevented him from running at top speed during six training runs.
After Friday's two practice runs, Holcomb said his calf is "about 75" and hopes it's 100 percent OK by the time he, Curt Tomasevicz, Steve Langton and Chris Fogt, jump in USA-1 and try to win it all again.
Four years ago in Vancouver, Holcomb drove his "Night Train" sled to gold, the first for an American four-man team since 1948. Tomasevicz and Langton, his two-man partner, are back with him again and Holcomb believes the close-knit group can draw on the experience from that magical evening.
"We've been there, we've done that," said Holcomb, from Park City, Utah. "I think that's the hardest part. I didn't win a medal my first four years driving. But once you win that first race, you understand how to win, and it's like, 'Oh, OK, that's how you win a race and it just kind of comes naturally.'