Shoving a pushcart loaded down with hundreds of pounds of weights is tough. What’s even harder is being quizzed while you’re doing it, says Mike Kohn. So when people would ask him what exactly he was up to as he struggled with his equipment around various spots in Maryland and Virginia, he’d just tell them, “I have this weird way I exercise.”
They’d never believe the real answer: He was in training for the Olympic bobsled team.
Kohn, 41, competed in the sport for two decades, winning a bronze medal in 2002 along the way. Although he planned to step away from bobsled after his appearance in the Vancouver Games in 2010, Kohn just couldn’t quit. He’s now in Sochi as assistant coach for the men’s team.
When he returns to the States, Kohn will search for new athletes to follow in his fast and powerful footsteps. Several members of the team are expected to retire after the Sochi Games, so it’ll be a time of rebuilding. And if recruits want to pursue their Olympic bobsled dreams, they need to get started as soon as possible. Four years isn’t such a long time to develop the strength of a weightlifter, the speed of a sprinter and the grace of a dancer.
The good news for locals? They won’t need to move anywhere. That’s because the Washington region is one of the best places in the country to prepare for the sport.
There’s no bobsled track around here, but there are only 17 of those in the world — and just two in the United States: Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah. Luckily for athletes, the technical aspects of bobsled training take a backseat to the strength and conditioning — and most importantly, the coaching.
D.C.’s reputation as a hotbed for bobsled started with one guy: John Philbin. He’s best known to Washington-area sports fans these days as the strength and conditioning coach for the Nationals (and before that, for the Redskins). Thirty years ago, the Maryland native was on the Olympic bobsled team; soon after, he became head coach for the sport.
“Going 90 mph on a track of ice — there’s no other ride like it,” says Philbin, who’s still one of bobsled’s greatest champions. He heavily recruited in the region in the late 1980s and early ’90s, which is how he roped in Kohn and several other young athletes.
Recently, baseball has distracted Philbin, who closed down his eponymous personal training center in Gaithersburg, Md. But he’s back to thinking about bobsled with the planned mid-March opening of Launch Sports Performance (launchsp.com).
Philbin will pitch in at the Rockville facility, which has a not-so-subtle bobsled bent. The head strength and conditioning coach is TJ Burns, another one of Philbin’s proteges (and an alternate on the 2010 Olympic team). The founder is physical therapist Liz Wheeler, who helped Burns get back on track after a terrible knee injury.
Launch will welcome athletes of all stripes, Burns says, but he hopes to host specialized bobsled clinics and recruiting events, including a combine with Kohn this summer. The test is a chance for people to see whether they have the potential to develop the power, strength and speed to pursue an Olympic career.
One quality that’s trickier to measure is mindset. Mike Savitch, a native of St. Thomas, competed on the Virgin Islands bobsled team from 1995 to 2002 while working as a personal trainer in D.C.
The CrossFit coach — who has plans to open a box in Virginia soon — is a realist about the sport. It’s not for everyone. His second run down a track resulted in a concussion and a dislocated shoulder. And pretty much every time he started rushing along at high speeds with virtually no control, “all I could think was, ‘I’m going to crash and die,’ ” Savitch says. Philbin describes tipping over as feeling like being trapped in a washing machine.
All that craziness is balanced out by the rewards, Burns says: “If you do well, you’re racing for your country. You’re a big kid that gets to go sledding for a living.”
“A living” is kind of a stretch considering that bobsledders earn virtually nothing. Philbin notes that several Nationals players would make a bobsled dream team: Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond. “But I think they’d rather make their millions,” he says.
If they ever decide they want to earn a gold medal, they should talk to Kohn.
The Training Schedule
The first step to becoming a bobsledder? Score high enough on this test:
-A 60-meter sprint (or a 45-meter sprint for women).
-Shot toss. Men throw a 16-pound shot, women a 12-pound shot.
-Power clean (1 rep max).
-Back squat (3 rep max).
An impressive performance is a ticket to more training. Philbin has his athletes lift, run and jump — as well as do some nuttier things. That includes “overspeed training,” which involves running with bungee cords, and pushing cars (or other heavy objects). Even though Burns is retired from the sport, he gets anxious whenever he’s near the Rockville middle school where Philbin had him haul sleds up a hill.
Hurdles, box jumps and other plyometric exercises are standard for bobsled training. Burns points to the scars along his shins from missed attempts on wooden boxes.
For Savitch, his secret weapon was in Georgetown: the “Exorcist” steps. “I ran them four times a week, triple hopping all the way up,” he says.
Athletes today, Savitch adds, are fortunate that CrossFit has popularized Olympic lifting. Power moves are key for bobsledders, but they usually require dropping the weights, which wasn’t allowed at most gyms back when he was competing.
Viewers will be able to see the results of improved training techniques in Sochi, Kohn says. “They’re better than I wished I could be,” he adds.
D.C.-area women have a bobsled role model now too: Elana Meyers. The 29-year-old, who attended George Washington University for undergrad and a master’s program, won a bronze medal at the Olympics in 2010 and is competing again in Sochi. Watch her when the women’s events begin Feb. 18.