Columbian will lead bobsled team at Olympics

Mike Kohn, a bobsledder who lives in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, will participate in the Olympics for a second time.
Mike Kohn, a bobsledder who lives in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, will participate in the Olympics for a second time.

Bobsledder Mike Kohn was pondering retirement from the sport before receiving the most bittersweet phone call of his life last year.

Close friend and rival Todd Hays, who had all but locked up a spot in the Vancouver Winter Olympics, had sustained a career-ending head injury on Dec. 9. He left the doctor's office and called Kohn, a Columbia resident who lives part time in Myrtle Beach.

Hays' message was clear: If he could not compete in the Olympics, he wanted to make sure Kohn did.

"I struggled with it in the beginning because Todd is such a good friend of mine," Kohn said. "As a competitor that's not really how I wanted to move up, but I did some soul-searching on the issue and kind of determined that it was an unfortunate accident.

"And I also had a responsibility to help out the country."

Kohn's two- and four-man bobsled teams were long shots to earn a spot in the Olympics before Hays' crash. Because of the accident, Kohn had a chance to qualify for the Olympics if he earned enough points in a World Cup event in January in Switzerland - and he did.

Kohn, 37, will be participating in the Olympics for the second time. He was a brakeman in 2002 and an alternate four years ago.

Hays and Kohn played an integral part in helping American bobsledding gain respect around the world at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Hays' four-man team won a silver medal, and Kohn's team won the bronze, the United States' first medals in the sport since 1956.

It was memories like that one that made it so tough for Kohn to see Hays' career end.

But Hays said, "I really hope he doesn't feel bad, because that's just part of competition. It wasn't going to do me any good to sit around and cry about it, and I just wanted to give him a heads up that he needed to prepare because time was limited. I wanted to give him every opportunity he could to get ready.

"He's taken his opportunity, and now he gets a chance at the big show."

This will be Kohn's first Olympics as a driver, the central figure on a bobsled team. It has taken him two decades to reach the sport's ultimate destination in the lead role.

Kohn was running track at George Mason when he was approached about bobsledding in 1990. After competing at the 1991 U.S. trials, Kohn spent more than a decade traveling around the globe for World Cup events before his Olympic dreams came true with a medal in 2002.

Yet, in many ways this month's Vancouver Games will be more meaningful.

"Most of it is in my hands as a driver, so it's probably more rewarding," Kohn said. "I was happy to go as a brakeman, but I always wanted to go as a driver. Ever since I got started that was my ultimate goal."

It almost never happened. Kohn was ready to give up the sport last year. An Army National Guardsman in northern Virginia, he had been putting off plans to attend Army Officer's Candidate School for an eventual overseas deployment.

But those goals will have to wait until after Vancouver. Kohn's team will compete in two-man heats on Feb. 20 and in the four-man heats six days later. Kohn is not expected to medal, but that does not matter.

"This is definitely it," Kohn said of his career. "Twenty years is more than enough. I've been fortunate enough to go to one Olympics already. We'd like to repeat that (medal), but regardless of whether I win a gold or we finish dead last, I think we've already accomplished a lot just to be able to represent the United States in the Olympic games.

"It's going to be rewarding for me. ... I love the sport, and I've been fortunate in life I've found something I love to do. It will be a swan song moment for me. It'll be my last run at it.

"I'll have a smile on my face, no question."