A new team? Olympic bobsledders John Napier, Mike Kohn hope to serve with military overseas

By Tim Reynolds, AP
Monday, March 1, 2010

Napier, Kohn now turn eyes toward Middle East

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The Olympics are over, and U.S. bobsled pilots John Napier and Mike Kohn have put away their red, white and blue racing suits.

Army green could be next.

Knowing it could take them away from bobsledding — not to mention loved ones — for maybe a year or more, Napier and Kohn both are hoping they’ll be called upon to serve with the U.S. Army in Iraq or Afghanistan in the coming months. Napier’s National Guard unit from Vermont already has been deployed, and Kohn plans to apply to Officer Candidate School for his chance to serve abroad.

“John and I have the same perspective,” Kohn said. “It’s a small price to pay to be able to not only live in such a great country, but to be able to represent it at the Olympic Games. I will walk through fire if I have to to continue to live in such a great country and support it as much as I can. I couldn’t ask for a better place to live, and it’d be my honor to go over there.”

It’s unclear if either will get the chance.

Napier is part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which essentially means that while he is a soldier — Napier carries the rank of sergeant — he gets to represent the military by being an ambassador through bobsledding. As much as he wants to go, and he’s been talking about serving in the Middle East for many months, Napier knows it’s not his call.

It’s up to the Army now.

“I’ll do what they want and I’ll be where they need me when they need me, whether it’s in Afghanistan or bobsledding next year,” Napier said. “Whatever they need, I’ll be there and I’ll do it to the best of my ability and I’ll be happy as heck doing it.”

Military ties are everywhere within the U.S. bobsled program. At least four of the six American sled drivers during the Vancouver Games — including four-man gold medalist Steven Holcomb — have served in the National Guard. Several U.S. coaches have served as well, and even Canadian head coach Tuffy Latour was a member of the U.S. military before moving north.

Henry Kohn couldn’t be more pleased by all that.

He’s Mike Kohn’s father, a 27-year Army veteran who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War and has spent roughly 3½ years since as a civilian contractor in Baghdad. Henry Kohn flew to Vancouver to watch his son compete in the two- and four-man events, knowing there’s a chance it could be the last time Mike Kohn drives a bobsled for the U.S.

“It’s a culmination of 20 years of him being in and out of the sport,” Henry Kohn said. “We’re just extremely proud of him. He’s so professional. His team works at a little bit of a disadvantage because they’ve got light guys pushing a heavy sled. But given all that’s happened here at this track, I’m extremely proud of him. He is definitely a veteran. He has negotiated this track to the best of his ability. It’s just the crowning jewel.”

And to hear that both his son and Napier want to join the troops, that was a delight for a military man like Henry Kohn.

“John Napier, I can say this, is a fine young man,” Henry Kohn said. “The fact that they both want to say, ‘I want to put that uniform on,’ know they are setting their sights on something like that, that is truly the hardest service to your country.”

Napier didn’t even wait to leave Whistler before plotting his next move. On Saturday, the final day of the four-man competition (he was held out of the final two runs with a sore neck after a crash while racing Friday), Napier reiterated that he was planning to talk with WCAP officials about his hopes to serve.

He knows some people might not understand.

To them, Napier would say that without the Army backing, he never would have made the Olympics — and he wants to provide some level of pay back for that assistance.

“Vermont will accept me enthusiastically. That’s what they said,” Napier said. “If WCAP releases me, I’ll be over there right away and I’m happy about that. I’m happier than ever because that’s what I want to do. I wanted to serve here, slide in the Olympics and then go serve my country. But it’s up to WCAP. I’ll be happy in either situation.”

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