Just weeks after standing at the bottom of an icy track in Salt Lake City in February 2002, yelping with joy as he celebrated the surprising bronze medal finish of his four-man bobsled team, Chantilly resident Mike Kohn found himself perspiring in blistering, unfamiliar heat, walking among Army servicemen at a tent city in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Sent to boost morale, Kohn felt utterly inadequate for the task, listening as he did to soldiers' exultation over the recent arrival of a portable toilet, the first for that unit in some four months of duty. He observed with amazement the enthusiasm of poor Afghan citizens, delighted to accept hard-labor jobs for $10 per hour, a princely wage to them.
Weeks after celebrating his bronze medal in Salt Lake, above, Mike Kohn was in Afghanistan.
(Erich Schlegel -- Dallas Morning News)
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During the one-month tour, Kohn, a specialist in the Army, and several others who competed in the 2002 Winter Games, also visited installations in Kuwait, Uzbekistan, Syria and Germany.
"I realized at that point how lucky I was," Kohn said. "The opportunity to go to the Olympic Games representing the greatest country in the world . . . is unmatched."
That sentiment explains in part Kohn's decision to extend himself physically and financially for another Olympic run, this time aiming for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, and as a bobsled driver rather than a push athlete -- a considerable difference.
Kohn, 32, will depart this week for his first World Cup meet of the season in Winterberg, Germany, kicking off what he hopes will be an upward progression that will eventually put him in position to win another Olympic medal.
"I want to do it again," Kohn, a George Mason University graduate, said by phone last week from Lake Placid, N.Y., where he qualified for one of three coveted U.S. World Cup slots after two weekends of racing, winning the 2004 U.S. four-man title. "Only I want the yellow medal this time, not the brown one."
His trip abroad, Kohn said, evoked a wave of patriotism that made him think twice about whether it was appropriate to continue in the sport while other soldiers toiled in battlefields. His father's 27 years in the Army weighed on him. But then, he said, the Army had been willing to generously support his bobsled pursuits, signaling that it was possible to serve his country in more ways than one.
"As far removed as [competing in the Olympics] might seem from fighting on the ground, it has some relation," said Kohn, a member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program. "I felt like I was fighting for my country in a way, even though I didn't hold a candle to those guys on the ground. . . . That [rationale] is what kept me involved."
About a week after his trip, Kohn dived back into the sport he first dabbled in as a senior at Chantilly High when a bobsled recruiter, former Washington Redskins strength coach John Philbin, noticed his size and speed at a high school track and field meet. Kohn, 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds, returned to the gym to get back into shape and spent $20,000 to purchase the first sled he has ever owned, a used but quality model from Olympic silver medalist driver Todd Hayes.
He then hired Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian and the skipper of Kohn's bronze medal sled, to teach him to drive. By the fall of 2002, Kohn was competing again, already eyeing one of the two U.S. Olympic team spots that will be available next year for the 2006 Olympics. Kohn started successfully on the America's Cup circuit, something of a learner's tour, before heading over to Europe for more serious competition.
There, Kohn struggled. Last year, his second as a driver, he finished 17th or lower in seven of 11 races, results that rather accurately reflected his position on a steep learning curve. There were, though, a handful of sweet performances. Last December, he posted a fifth-place finish in a two-man race in Winterberg, a result Shimer described as "almost unheard of."
"I felt like, at the end of the day, 'Wow, I can do this,' " Kohn said. "If I was fifth, why can't I be third? Of course, I can be seventh, too."
As Kohn delved into the art of driving, he discovered with Shimer's assistance that just about everything he had learned as a push athlete -- one of the guys whose only responsibilities are pushing the sled 50 meters at the top of the track and jumping in for the ride down -- needed to be unlearned. Steering a bobsled, he found, called for a soft touch that belied the harrowing, jolting, pounding rides. It also demanded a feel for the track that Kohn soon realized he did not instinctively have.
Driving a bobsled "requires a lot more finesse, and Mike is learning that," Shimer said from Lake Placid last week. "You've got to learn to be an animal at the start and totally turn it off once you get in the front seat. Because of his athleticism, he has a shot."
Kohn has no financial incentive to remain in the sport. Despite his Olympic bronze medal -- not to mention being named one of People Magazine's top 50 most eligible bachelors in 2002 -- he profited little from his Olympic fame (he did meet luge athlete Courtney Zablocki, a 2002 Olympian who is now his girlfriend). The cost of transporting his new two-man sled and a four-man sled borrowed from the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, not to mention the handful of teammates he handpicked for the two-month stint overseas last season, ran about $50,000, a sum Kohn said he managed thanks to the Army and what he referred to as his other big sponsor: family and friends in the Chantilly, Fairfax and Herndon areas.
"It was astronomical at the end of the day," Kohn said.
The bills, he figures, will continue to be astronomical, but so, too, he said, will be his desire to get back to the Olympics.
"I love it," he said. "There is nothing better in the world to me."