Mike Kohn is back in the bobsled for another Olympics, and what a ride it was to get there
Monday, February 1, 2010
Leaving aside the supreme glory of an Olympic bronze medal in 2002, Mike Kohn's 20-year bobsledding career has often been painfully hard and cold.
As a Chantilly High senior 18 years ago, the Fairfax native missed the cut for the '92 Olympics. Weeks before the 1998 Winter Games, Kohn's bobsled was destroyed in a Christmas Eve fire. A hamstring injury prematurely derailed his bid in 2006.
And at the conclusion of a critical U.S. team selection event last October, Kohn found himself in fourth place among U.S. bobsled drivers in the race for two or possibly three Olympic berths for the Feb. 12-28 Winter Games in Vancouver.
Weary, miserable and frustrated, Kohn, 37, nonetheless continued competing, unable to quit despite his rapidly fading hopes of making his second Olympic team in five attempts.
"I just kept fighting," he said. "I never gave up. I probably should have."
Three months later, an unfortunate injury, a surprising phone call, a race against time and a wild ride through a whirlwind season left a grateful, stunned, sobbing Kohn at the bottom of a bobsled run in St. Moritz, Switzerland, with an invitation to the Vancouver Games. It happened Jan. 17, after Kohn's four-man sled finished in sixth place in a World Cup event that represented the last qualifying chance for the Winter Games.
"It was like we had won an Olympic gold medal," Kohn said. "We were yelling and screaming and crying. All the pressure was on, and we got it."
A high school football and track star, Kohn tried bobsledding while a teenager at the urging of John Philbin, then the strength and conditioning coach for the Washington Redskins. Philbin, who had worked with the U.S. national bobsled team, figured Kohn's size and speed would perfectly suit the sport, which requires a furious push over 50 feet to launch a sled down an icy track. Kohn, the youngest competitor at his first Olympic trials in 1992, didn't figure he had much of a shot for those Games, and he skipped the 1994 Olympic trials to concentrate on finishing his degree at George Mason University.
He graduated in the spring of 1997 and put his heart into making the '98 Games in Nagano, Japan.
But on Dec. 24, a fire raged through an auto body shop in West Valley, Utah, in which Kohn's team stored its $30,000 sled. The sight of the ravaged sled, its sides melted and base blackened and charred, left Kohn and his teammates devastated. Despite the last-ditch donation of a new bobsled by a local businessman after hearing of the disaster, Kohn failed to win an Olympic slot at the trials two weeks later.
As he turned his hopes to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Kohn joined the Virginia Army National Guard, which placed him into its Outstanding Athlete Program and helped defray the tens of thousands of dollars required to compete each year. Joining the Army gave Kohn, whose father was a Green Beret, a sense of purpose and peace of mind; however, he figured he was just as likely to be deployed to Afghanistan as to advance to Salt Lake City along with Brian Shimer, who despite seeking a trip to his fifth Olympics was not one of the top-ranked drivers.
Shimer, however, drove his men to an unexpected first-place finish in an Olympic trials race; then Shimer, Kohn, Doug Sharpe and Dan Steele went on to win an even more unfathomable Olympic bronze medal, behind the silver medalist team driven by fellow American Todd Hays. The two teams helped end the United States's 46-year medal drought in the sport and set off exultation at the bottom of the Olympic track.