Mike Kohn -- Nearly went to Afghanistan instead of vying for Olympics
By John Kekis The Associated Press
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Two weeks ago Mike Kohn was contemplating the end of his bobsledding career with the U.S. team. The final runs of a journey that began nearly two decades ago would be high in the Adirondack Mountains in America's Cup competition, the minor league of the sport.
"I just decided I'd grab a couple of beers and kind of ride that wave these last couple of weeks here, finish up on my home track and call it a year around Christmas," Kohn said. "That's what I was thinking."
After a decade of support from the Virginia National Guard that allowed Kohn to pursue his passion, it was time to give back. A tour in Afghanistan in the spring was the next big thing in Sgt. Kohn's life -- until a phone call last Monday night from teammate Todd Hays.
"I thought he was calling just to inquire about [sled] runners and the race protocol," Kohn said.
It was much more than that.
Hays is recuperating from a serious crash Dec. 9 during World Cup training in Germany. Medical tests had revealed irregularities in his brain, and the three-time Olympian had been told more head trauma could cause irreversible brain damage.
Hays was calling to tell his longtime friend that he was retiring. It took a while to get the words out.
"He said, 'Hey, we need to figure out what the best strategy is for you,' " Kohn said. "I said, 'What about you? Are you going to be able to get some points the second half [of the season]?'
"He kind of darted around the question for a little while, and the more I asked the more he talked about my situation," Kohn said. "Finally, he said, 'Look, I'm not going to be racing. I'm going to be retiring. My goal right now is to get you and your guys to the Olympic Games.' "
And just like that, the soft-spoken Kohn was given the chance he has longed for since he was recruited to the team in 1990 after starring in high school football and track in Chantilly, Va.
"I put the beer down and got back in the gym," the 37-year-old Kohn said with a smile. "Every night for the last 20 years I've been dreaming about this. I guess there's a little flame inside of me that said, 'Hang in there, you never know.' That's what's always driven me.
"If we can get our team going in the right direction, I feel pretty optimistic," said Kohn, whose signature moment in the sport came as a push athlete on Brian Shimer's bronze-winning four-man sled at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. "I think we've got a great chance at this. It's going to come down to the wire, who wants it the most. I hate that he [Hays] had to exit the sport that way, but we've got a renewed spirit."
Kohn was the youngest competitor at the 1991 Olympic trials, quit the sport for four years to get his college degree, then returned and made his first national team as a brakeman in 1998. He began driving after the 2002 Olympics and was an alternate in 2006 at Turin.
He already has responded like a champion.
Kohn teamed with brakeman T.J. Burns, of Blue Bell, Pa., to win silver Dec. 18 in a two-man America's Cup race at Lake Placid, a mere .01 seconds behind Canada's Serge Despres, one of Kohn's chief rivals in the race to qualify for Vancouver. Kohn and brakeman Nick Cunningham, of Monterey, Calif., swept two one-heat races Dec. 19, beating Despres both times.
Kohn capped an impressive weekend by winning a pair of one-heat four-man races last Sunday with Burns, Cunningham and brakeman Jamie Moriarty, of Winnetka, Ill. That put Kohn in solid contention in both disciplines as he heads for World Cup stops next month in Konigssee, Germany, and St. Moritz, Switzerland.
"Mike's got a great shot," Hays said. "He's got a great team. I think he'll make it for sure."
Only three nations will be permitted three sleds in both disciplines at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The Germans already are a lock in both, leaving the Canadian, Swiss and Russian teams as Kohn's biggest rivals in what has turned into an extremely tight race. Kohn is in good shape in two-man but only leads Canadian drivers Despres and Pierre Lueders by a mere 2 points in four-man.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Darrin Steele, CEO of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. "I think if he had a whole season, there's no question he would make it, but there are other countries that are pushing just as hard as we are to get that third team. I've looked at the numbers. It'll be a challenge."
Kohn has an ace up his sleeve. Hays, Olympic silver medalist in four-man at Salt Lake City, is intent on getting that third sled qualified.
"He's been up at the track every day helping us. He's been fantastic, and I think it speaks volumes of his commitment to the sport, his character," Kohn said.
"Mike won't quit until it's over, so that's really helped us, gave us a better shot at a third sled," Cunningham added. "I'm really optimistic."