Ben Koons scratches his competitive itch these days by entering community races and helping the young skiers of Aspen, Colo., chase their own dreams.
But four years ago, the Messalonskee High School graduate was in Vancouver, British Columbia, racing for his native New Zealand against the best cross country skiers in the world. As competition gets underway in Sochi, Russia, the former Olympian is anxious to watch the drama unfold.
“It’s an exciting time,” Koons said during a telephone interview from his Aspen home. “I have a bunch of friends racing there. I’m really excited to watch them.”
Koons, who was 23 at the time, was the first male cross country skier from New Zealand to qualify to compete in the Games. He went to Vancouver planning to compete in four events — the 15-kilometer freestyle, the men’s individual sprint, the 30k pursuit and the 50k classic — but the freestyle and sprint were scrapped because his hemoglobin levels tested too high. Subsequent tests, which are conducted to ensure the safety of the competitors, showed lower hemoglobin levels and Koons was allowed to compete in the final two races. He got sick during the 30k and was lapped, which required him to withdraw from the race. Koons placed 46th in the 50k with a time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 53.9 seconds.
“It was definitely a learning experience and at some points a pretty rough experience,” Koons said shortly after the games ended. “But I’m really psyched to be done and, in all, had a pretty good experience.”
Koons no longer competes at the highest levels. A designer in an architectural firm, he is a coach for the local high school ski team and ski club. He now races for fun in cross country and other events, like mountain bike racing.
“I have a bunch of friends out here,” Koons said. “I enjoy living in the mountains.”
Koons’ love for the mountains took root in New Zealand. The rolling hills of Maine couldn’t fill the void for Koons, who moved to Sidney with his family as a teenager. Aspen, which rests at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, has proven a suitable replacement.
But, “I certainly miss Maine,” he said.
Koons said he will be playing close attention to the events unfolding in Sochi. Journalists arriving at the resort city on the Black Sea have tweeted photos of unfinished hotel rooms and sidewalks, but Koons has heard no such complaints. Koons said the competitors he has spoken to have remarked on the beauty of the area and said things are going smoothly.
“It sounds like it’s pretty wild,” he said.
Koons said he will pay particular attention to the Nordic and biathlon races, but he has friends in other races as well. Leading up to the games there was concern that there would not be enough snow — Sochi rests in a subtropical region where temperatures are expected to be in the 50s for the next 10 days — but Koons believes the concerns are overblown.
“From the photos I’ve seen it looks like there’s plenty of snow,” he said. “In Vancouver they had similar issues and they made it work.”
At the beginning of the games, the athletes are focused on their events, but the Olympic Village takes on a more festive atmosphere as the games progress and athletes finish competing. The village and meeting the other athletes is a big part of the Olympic experience, Koons said.
“Often you’ll be finished and still have a week of the games still going on,” he said. “You can let your hair down and check out the other events.”
Koons has the fondest memories of the opening ceremony when the athletes from all the nations file into the stadium to tens of thousands of cheering fans.
“Walking in behind your country’s flag is pretty powerful,” Koons said.
Those are some of the things he will miss this year as he watches the games on television, but he is content to be at home rather than living on the road.
“It’s really nice to be living in the community, coaching a ski program and putting down roots,” Koons said.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 firstname.lastname@example.org