U.S. bobsledder Mike Kohn calls Brian Shimer the best driving coach in the world, but Shimer, a five-time Olympian, might be surprised to know the most powerful lessons he ever gave Kohn came when he was dead asleep.
At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Shimer and Kohn, then a pusher on Shimer's four-man team, were assigned to the same dormitory room at the Olympic Village. Every night leading up to their bronze-medal victory, Kohn recalled, Shimer would begin snoring just minutes after the lights went off. Kohn, meantime, would toss and turn.
As the competition approached, Kohn began reading his roommate's easy slumber as if it were an instruction manual: Shimer was relaxed. His confidence drowned out any apprehension. That state of mind, Kohn realized, was exactly what he needed when he began driving bobsleds shortly after those Olympics. It was what he needed last weekend in Calgary, Alberta, when he took a bad case of nerves to the track and stumbled to 18th place.
And it was what helped him to his first major international medal Saturday at Verizon Sports Complex, when Kohn and brakeman Alex Sprague claimed a stunning silver in a two-man World Cup race in 1 minute 53.26 seconds. They trailed only reigning Olympic champion Andre Lange and Kevin Kuske (1:52.88). American Todd Hays and Pavle Jovanovic won the bronze in 1:53.39.
"Today was pretty relaxed," said Kohn, 33, who was born in Chantilly and attended George Mason University. "One of the things that helped me was walking the track today with Brian. . . . His voice just kind of relaxes me. . . . I was just nervous before Calgary. I'll admit that. Nerves got to me three hours before the race. This time, the nerves came about 10 minutes before the race, which was the perfect time."
Saturday's finish pushed Kohn quite suddenly from outsider to big-time player in his sport -- he is ranked fifth overall in the World Cup two-man standings after two events -- and moved him a step closer to winning a U.S. Olympic team slot for which he has long been considered a long shot. At the start of the season, most would have figured that Hays and Steve Holcomb, who finished 14th Saturday (1:54.47), would have a significant advantage over Kohn.
Hays, considered one of the best bobsled drivers in the world, won a four-man silver medal at the Salt Lake Olympics. Holcomb, meantime, finished 11th in last year's combined World Cup standings, well ahead of Kohn at 18th. The two drivers from each discipline that will represent the United States at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin will be chosen on the basis of their World Cup standings as of early January.
"I wouldn't want it any other way," Kohn said. "I felt like there's less pressure being in that spot. It was the same thing before 2002 with Brian."
Indeed, many dismissed Shimer as too old and battered from six knee surgeries to even make the U.S. team in 2002, much less win a medal. Shimer, then 39, was ranked 33rd in the world entering the trials that were conducted for those Games, well behind Hays (first) and Mike Dionne (11th), yet he claimed the second Olympic team spot. Kohn said he asked Shimer before those trials if he found the competition from his U.S. rivals disconcerting.
"I'm not worried about them," Shimer had said, according to Kohn. "I'm worried about trying to get a medal."
During the Olympic competition, Shimer's four-man sled stood in fifth place entering the second and final day of racing. This troubled Kohn, who desperately wanted a medal but feared the foursome just wouldn't be fast enough. Kohn said he drew up a list of ideas designed to add speed to Shimer's sled, including taking some weight out of it and changing the sled's runners. He presented the plan to the U.S. team coaches and, when they responded positively, took his list to Shimer.
Shimer dismissed it immediately. "We're not changing anything," Shimer said, according to Kohn. "You guys are just going to have to push harder."
Kohn was struck by Shimer's demeanor.
"I knew," he said, "his confidence was building."
And Kohn's grew with it. But he essentially started over in the sport when he took up driving after the 2002 Games, immediately hiring the then-retired Shimer to coach him. Shimer said Kohn, introduced to the sport as a senior at Chantilly High, still struggles to balance the aggression required to push the sled with the light touch needed to drive it.
In his first season on the World Cup circuit in 2003-04, Kohn managed one fifth-place finish in a two-man race in Winterberg, Germany, along with a slew of ninths or worse. Last season, he claimed a fourth place in the two-man in Lake Placid but could not muster any medals.
Even with Saturday's victory, which he credited in part to his comfort level on the Lake Placid track, and his growing success in the two-man event, Kohn will remain an underdog to some. His 110-72 lead over Holcomb in the two-man World Cup standings could be erased in one weekend.
"He knows what it's like to battle from way back and be the underdog," Shimer said. "We did it in 2002 [despite] all the odds against us. I guarantee you, Mike Kohn is absolutely sure he can go to Torino and win a medal. Nothing is impossible."