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Olympic Bobsled Hopes Go Up in Flames

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 1997; Page D1

The bobsled cost a pricey $30,000, and it was painted a glossy red, white and blue with a checkered racing flag on one side. Now it is smoke-blackened and partially melted, its colors running together and its fiberglass sides collapsed from a Christmas Eve fire.

Fairfax native Michael Kohn once believed this high-tech sled would carry him and his teammates in the four-man bobsled event to this winter's Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

Yesterday, a day after surveying the damage wreaked by a raging fire that tore through an auto-body shop in West Valley City, Utah — where the bobsled was stored over the Christmas holiday — Kohn couldn't hide his fear that his Olympic dreams had burned up just before the U.S. Olympic trials, which began yesterday in Park City, Utah.

"Unless you have gone through the sacrifices we've had, the experiences we've had, it's hard to understand how we feel," Kohn said by phone. "I quit my job last November [1996]. We are all in debt. We have done this for our Olympic dream, and to see that go up in flames is devastating."

Kohn and his sled mates, who are led by driver Bruce Rosselli, returned to Park City on Dec. 25 after holiday trips home. Rosselli and Paul Wise, another team member, burst into tears when they saw the sled, which looked like "a big piece of charcoal," Kohn said. He said the cause of the fire is unknown.

The bobsledders are trying frantically to locate a high quality bobsled and scrape together the substantial sum needed to purchase it in time for this weekend's four-man races. In the meantime, they are practicing on an out-of-date sled from the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, the national governing body of the sport.

Kohn said a replacement sled might be available in Europe or Canada. The burned sled was manufactured about a year ago in Germany.

"The sweat is running now," Kohn said. "The problem is, we need a sled of that caliber or better to be a contender. Whether we get one or not, I don't know, but we are going to try.

"It's very disheartening what has happened to us. I've never quit in anything I've ever done, especially in sports. I always stuck it out. This means the world to me, making the 1998 Olympic team, and I'm not going to give up."

Kohn, 25, graduated from Chantilly High in 1990 and George Mason University last May. While at Chantilly, Kohn was recruited by former U.S. bobsled coach John Philbin, who also has worked as a strength coach for the Washington Redskins. Philbin observed Kohn during a track and field meet and encouraged him to pursue bobsledding. Kohn followed Philbin's advice.

"Since I was a little child, I wanted to be in the Olympics," Kohn said. "I always thought that was the ultimate in sports."

Bobsledding is not the ultimate in financial return, Kohn has learned. He is in debt, despite help from many sources. He is sponsored by a chiropractor in Springfield. His roommate in Oakton doesn't charge rent. Kohn and his teammates have been sleeping on roll-away beds in the basement of family in Park City, eating at the family's expense. There are seven members of the Rosselli team: Kohn, Rosselli, Wise, Paule Jovanovic, two mechanics and one attorney. The mechanics and the attorney are volunteers.

Kohn worked as a personal trainer at Philbin's Health and Fitness centers in Centreville and Germantown before giving up his job last year. He said his parents are employed by the State Department and are stationed in Bogota, Colombia.

The fire made the local news in Park City on Monday night, resulting in a wave of donations yesterday, including a $2,000 check from an area businessman, Kohn said. He also said the United Parcel Service, an Olympic sponsor, and several other mail services have offered to deliver a new sled overnight at no cost.

"We really feel like we have the country behind us," Kohn said.

Problems, however, remain.

To qualify for the Olympics, teams must finish in the top two overall in the two-man and four-man events this weekend. Well-known driver Brian Shimer and his crew have a received a bye onto the Olympic team, leaving only two spots open.

Rosselli and Paul Wise competed in the first two-man race yesterday and finished third. They race again today. The Rosselli team, which did not qualify to compete on the World Cup circuit this winter, would be considered a long shot even with a top-notch sled. Shimer and two other U.S. drivers have been competing on the World Cup circuit while Rosselli and his team have competed in the America's Cup — the "B" level. Without a new sled, they would appear to have no chance.

"We're looking for all the help we can get," Kohn said. "Hopefully, we will be heading to Nagano."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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