Feb152010

Mason Alum Kohn Makes Unlikely (Bobsled) Run to Vancouver

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By Rashad Mulla

Mike Kohn, far left, with his 2002 Olympics bronze medal-winning team. Photo courtesy of Henry and Barbara Kohn

Mason alum Mike Kohn’s bobsledding career has been anything but ordinary.

A 20-year veteran of the sport, Kohn, 37, will be competing in two events at the Vancouver Olympics, the two-man race on Feb. 20 starting at 5 p.m. and the four-man race on Feb. 26 starting at 1 p.m.

But in a career noted for its obstacles, Kohn, BS Health, Fitness and Recreation Resources ’97, had to overcome more than a few bumps to make it to these Winter Games, the second time he has qualified for the big stage. He took home a bronze medal in 2002.

Kohn found himself on the outside looking in as the Olympics drew near. He was ranked fourth among U.S. bobsled drivers — with only two or three qualifying — as late as October 2009, according to The Washington Post.

But his fortunes changed when three-time Olympian Todd Hays suffered a head injury that would keep him out of the Olympics. Hays called Kohn and told him to get ready for Vancouver.

Qualifying wouldn’t be easy. Kohn needed consistent top finishes to get enough points to secure a spot on the U.S. team. In the end, it came down to one event.

“We were sitting in a position where it came down to one race in [St. Moritz,] Switzerland,” Kohn says. “We needed to finish 13th in the two-man race, and 14th in the four-man.”

He scraped by with a 12th-place finish in the two-man race and then finished a decisive sixth in the four-man race, setting off a huge celebration.

Kohn takes a close look at his bobsled. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army National Guard

“There was a lot of jubilation, a lot of happiness,” he says. “The toughest part of the Olympics is getting there, and [qualifying] the way we did is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

Winning a bronze medal eight years ago ranks pretty high on that list, too. Kohn’s team was not a favorite to medal in Salt Lake City. The United States had not earned a medal in Olympic bobsledding in 46 years.

Teaming with five-time Olympian Brian Shimer, Doug Sharp and Dan Steele, Kohn went on to capture the bronze medal and end the long drought.

“Our highest projected finish was 12th place,” Kohn recalled. “It was a great moment and a very special time in our nation’s history. I will never forget it.”

Although Kohn hopes to duplicate his medal-winning ways in Vancouver, he had to overcome years of challenges to get there. His improbable qualification run was one of many obstacles he has faced since entering the sport in 1990.

After graduating from Chantilly (Va.) High School, Kohn attended the trials for the 1992 Olympics but didn’t qualify. He skipped the 1994 Games to concentrate on earning his degree at Mason. While he was striving to reach the 1998 Olympics, his team’s $30,000 bobsled was destroyed in a fire that charred the building in which it was stored.

Despite these unlucky breaks, Kohn maintained a rigorous training regimen for years, hoping to some day qualify for the Winter Games. The sport’s regular season runs between October and February.

“We take March off, and in April, we start to kick up our training,” Kohn explains. “If you combine the workouts of an Olympic sprinter and a weight lifter, you have what we do.”

The financial demands of the sport are even more daunting than the physical demands.

Kohn's team competes in Lake Placid, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Henry and Barbara Kohn

To start, bobsledding teams usually have to buy their own bobsled, which Kohn estimates run $30,000-$50,000 each, with the better ones costing even more. Sponsors are reluctant to fund a driver’s training, Kohn says, considering that part of a rookie driver’s learning experience inevitably includes crashing the expensive bobsled.

However, as a member of the Virginia Army National Guard, Kohn’s competition costs are now offset by the National Guard’s Outstanding Athlete Program, in which he participates, and local sponsors.

Fitness, Kohn says, is a passion. He has been a personal trainer over the years and partners with former Redskins strength and conditioning coach, as well as Olympic trainer John Philbin at Philbin’s Family Fitness & Athletic Training Center in Gaithersburg, Md. In fact, Philbin introduced Kohn to bobsledding when the Olympic veteran was a high school football and track star.

“The degree has educated me in how the human body works,” Kohn says. “Being an Olympian, I kind of felt that I owed it to myself to figure out the nuts and bolts of how fitness works.”

After the Vancouver Olympics, Kohn plans to step away from the sport and focus on his girlfriend and career with the National Guard. Eventually, he would like to coach.

But first, he has a mission to accomplish in Vancouver. He warns detractors not to count him out, and he is aiming for another medal.

“There’s nothing that flips the switch in an athlete and brings out the best like the Olympic Games,” Kohn says. “I welcome the pressure. It brings out the best in me.”

“Having been to an Olympics before, I still believe that anything can happen.”

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