- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY Northern Virginia's Mike Kohn will begin his Olympic competition today as a member of the Brian Shimer bobsled team. His Olympic moment, however, came nearly two weeks ago as he stood with his fellow athletes in Rice-Eccles Stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics and watched an honor guard carry in the tattered American flag from ground zero.

It was a solemn, breathtaking moment that touched nearly everyone who witnessed it. But it meant more to Kohn than most others in the stadium.

Like most of them, he was an American. And, like his teammates, he was representing his country as an Olympic athlete. But Kohn, 29, also is one of seven soldiers on the U.S. team as a result of the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program that seeks to place soldier-athletes on the Olympic team and promote the Army through national and international competition.

"It was an incredible experience," said Kohn, a Chantilly, Va., resident and George Mason University graduate. "It was the greatest moment of my life."

Ordinarily, one might believe that a medal in the bobsled would then become Kohn's greatest moment. But, like most Americans, his priorities sharpened and changed after September 11, and just marching into the stadium was an accomplishment for Kohn, who had wondered where he might be when the Salt Lake City Games began in the stadium or in Afghanistan. He was ready to go abroad if called.

"Of course I would have been disapppointed, but I am a soldier first and am willing to defend the freedoms that I exercise," he said. "In fact, I was pretty upset and almost wanted to go. It took a while to get used to the idea that what I was doing back here was worthwhile."

The Games have proved worthwhile, if measured by the interest and patriotic fervor of Americans who have seen U.S. athletes win a record number of medals. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Kohn would like to add to that record as part of team led by Shimer, the long-time U.S. bobsled driver who is competing in his fifth Olympics. The American team led by Todd Hays is considered the United States' best chance for a medal in men's bobsled.

"We are in our home country, and we know the track," Kohn said. "We have been driving on that track for six years, and the Europeans have been on it maybe three times over the past six years. This is as good a shot as we are ever going to get."

Getting a chance for an Olympic medal in bobsled is hardly the kind of thing a 10-year-old boy who had recently moved from Columbia, S.C., grew up dreaming of in Northern Virginia. Kohn was a football and track star in high school, and that is where John Philbin, a former strength coach for the Washington Redskins, first saw him at a track meet.

Philbin was doing some work for the Olympic team and looking for athletes to turn into bobsledders runners with good upper body strength. Kohn fit that bill, and went to Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1990 to begin training, working out at the time with the likes of football players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker and track star Edwin Moses.

At 18, Kohn tried to make the 1992 Olympic team. He was the youngest member ever to compete in the Olympic trials but came up short. He then went to the University of South Carolina, where he played football as a walk-on and put bobsledding behind him.

Kohn transferred to George Mason in 1996 and began thinking about trying out for the 1998 U.S. bobsled team.

"It was a long shot, but I wanted to get back into the sport as soon as possible," he said. "I missed the team, but then I stuck with it full time for the next four years, and now it has paid off."

But he nearly didn't make it here after the September 11 attacks, which nearly hit home for Kohn's family. His father, Henry, is a retired Army major and his mother Barbara has just began attending college after a career in real estate sales.

"My brother was working at the World Trade Center three or four days a week as a temporary office worker," he said. "Fortunately, he wasn't there that day, but he was back in Northern Virginia, about 20 minutes from the Pentagon."

Today Specialist Michael Kohn will represent his country both as an athlete and a soldier, with his thoughts never far from what each of those roles represent.

"I wouldn't be where I am without the support I received from the U.S. Army," he said. "I'm proud to be part of this program."

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