RICHMOND, Va. – A Virginia Army National Guard officer is leading the U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, China, serving as head coach of the team.
Capt. Michael Kohn, assigned to the VNG joint operations section, has been active in bobsledding since graduating high school in Northern Virginia in 1990.
After falling short of making the Olympic team in 1992 and 1994, Kohn played football as a walk-on at the University of South Carolina before finishing his degree at George Mason University. Kohn missed the 1998 Olympic team but finished 5th in the 1999 World Championships. He still hadn’t met his ultimate goal of competing at the Olympics, so he chose to start serving his country in another way.
“I wanted to keep pursuing bobsled because I knew I had what it took to get to the Olympics,” said Kohn. “The active component wasn’t really going to permit me to do that, but the National Guard I felt like gave me the best opportunity, so I joined in 1999. I grew up in the military. My father was active duty. He was in the 5th Special Forces Group during Vietnam, so I always wanted to be in the military. I think it was just in my blood.”
Even after joining the Guard, Kohn continued to strive toward his Olympic dream, training in Lake Placid, New York.
A few short years later, that dream became a reality as he competed as a bobsled pusher in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Kohn and his four-man team earned a bronze medal.
“It was an amazing opportunity but a sad time as well. It was five months removed from September 11,” said Kohn. “Winning a medal there was a very special time.”
Kohn competed again as an alternate driver in 2006, then as a driver in 2010. He transitioned to coaching, serving as an assistant for Team USA in 2014 and 2018 before being named head coach after the 2018 Games.
Leading Team USA, composed of eight men and four women, to Beijing as their head coach means a new kind of challenge for Kohn.
“It’s equally stressful, but it’s a different kind of stress,” Kohn explained. “As an athlete, I felt like there’s certainly a stress with trying to make the team and trying to earn a medal at the games. As a head coach, people are looking at you, evaluating you on your results at the Olympics.”
Kohn said there are similarities in how he leads the bobsled team and the leadership lessons he’s learned in the Guard, including from when he completed Officer Candidate School in 2010 at the Fort Pickett-based 183rd Regiment, Regional Training Institute.
“I think the challenge I have as a head coach is I don’t have control over a lot of things. I don’t have the ability to make decisions about how athletes train, how they think,” said Kohn. “I can only give them — and this is the definition of leadership in the Army — I give them purpose, motivation and direction to accomplish the mission. That’s my job.”
Kohn said there are other similarities between military service and competing on the national bobsled team.
“The one thing that comes to mind is teamwork,” said Kohn. “One thing about our sport is you just can’t do it by yourself. I love the movie Rambo, but you just can’t be out there on your own trying to accomplish the mission. You need help.”
Kohn explained part of being a good teammate is being self-reliant.
“I’ve told them the other reason I need you to be self-reliant is because when you’re going down that hill on that sled at 90 miles per hour trying to win a medal for your nation, I can’t be in that sled to help you in that moment,” said Kohn. “I can’t be there. But, as a team, we can support each other in being self-reliant. That’s how we’re going to be at our best.”
The team Kohn is leading in China includes civilians as well as other Soldiers. Kohn and the Soldiers on the team are on orders with the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which lets Soldiers from active and reserve components train in preparation for competing as a representative of their country.
“It’s a program set up to support Soldier-Athletes to compete in events which take place internationally to represent Team USA,” said Kohn. “The goal is to make the Olympics and win medals for Team USA. I’ve been very fortunate to have moved in and out of that program for going on 23 years now.”
For Kohn, balancing the rigors of training for the Olympics with his career as an officer in the Virginia National Guard can be challenging, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“What I normally do after the Olympics is come home back to my Guard unit and try to pursue my military career as much as possible,” he said. “Once we get closer to the next Olympics, I apply to get back into the WCAP. It’s a little bit of a balancing act. I’m drinking from a firehose right now with bobsled representing Team USA. Then after this is over, I’ll be drinking from a firehose on the military side, trying to get caught up with my unit.
“I have to pinch myself every day. I’m very lucky to be where I am and get to do what I get to do. I can’t express enough appreciation for the support I’ve received at the Virginia Guard, as well as the active component and the Olympic team. I can’t believe I get to do it. I’m a head coach, I’m an officer in the military. I don’t know how it gets any better than that for me. I’m just incredibly grateful for this opportunity.”
Kohn also explained getting to do both things he’s passionate about actually helps him improve in both roles.
“A lot of that training I receive and experience I get working in the Guard, as you can imagine, it transfers over into bobsledding. And, there’s some bobsled stuff that translates over into the Guard. It helps me with trying to be a better Soldier and leader.”
For now, his focus is on Beijing and trying to bring home medals for his country. The challenge is immense, but Kohn likes where his team is going into the games.
“I feel really, really good about the women’s program. Their program right now, Kaillie Humphries (who won a gold medal in women’s monobob Feb. 14), Elana Meyers Taylor (who won a silver medal in women’s monobob Feb. 14), are top athletes, and they’ve won multiple medals at the World Cup this year,” Kohn said. “Our men’s team has an outside chance. They’ve won two World Cup medals this quad, one of which was just recently in Germany. I think we’ve got a chance with our men’s team to be an upset team. A lot of people would say we don’t have a chance, but I disagree. I think we’ve got something special brewing.”
Regardless of the outcome, Kohn said he’s proud to lead his team into the competition and knows a whole nation will be watching.
“I’m blessed. I’ve got a great group of Soldiers and civilians. The civilians to me, they’re all like Soldiers. They really are. They’re representing their nation, doing it for intrinsic reasons, and it’s an honor to work with them,” said Kohn. “I think that for the Soldiers and the civilian athletes we have representing this nation at the Olympics, everyone, military and civilian, can be very proud of them.”