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The strange story of the 'almost Olympian' Besnik Sokoli

Eric Adelson
Besnik Sokoli had hoped to compete in PyeongChang, but when that didn’t happen, he came anyway. (Courtesy of Besnik Sokoli)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Sometimes it’s about finding a path to get where you really want to go. And sometimes that path goes directly through a Brooklyn boiler room.

The way to his dreams has always been strange and sometimes scary for Besnik Sokoli. “I’m a simple dude,” he said by phone last week.

But he’s not.

Sokoli is a refugee from Kosovo. He is a superintendent in a New York City apartment complex. He is a skier who trained for glory in a basement. And he is both a part of his native country’s Olympic ski team and … not.

“Besnik Sokoli has been invited to join our team as our team’s guest,” says the secretary general of the Kosovo ski federation.

“I never heard about him!” says the president of the Kosovo national organizing committee. “He never was in our Kosovo NOC list!”

Let’s try to explain.

Sokoli skied all the time as a kid in Yugoslavia (now Kosovo) before war tore up the region and sent his family fleeing to the U.S. when he was a teen. He says he was shot once and stabbed once, at age 12 and age 14. He speaks openly about the death and devastation – the snipers and landmines not far from where he lived. He arrived in the States in 1999, studying and working his way to the job of building superintendent in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn (short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). He eventually ran 150 units in several buildings. He started a family. He had a great American tale.

Then it got greater. And stranger.

He started to ski again. This was a little more than a year ago. He was in his mid-30s but he found out he was still pretty fast. And an instructor at the Shawnee Mountain resort in the Poconos noticed. The coach asked him, “Who do you race with? You look ugly but you go fast.”

That triggered the thought that maybe he could go to the Olympics as a member of the Kosovo delegation.

But he needed to race. And he needed to train.

Besnik Sokoli and his wife Fiona attended the Opening Ceremonies in PyeongChang. (Courtesy of Besnik Sokoli)

He found a way to do both. Sokoli signed up for competitions all over the world, from Chile to Iceland. “I did very well in Turkey,” he said. “I liked South Africa a lot.” He wasn’t a world-beater, but he didn’t bomb out, either. The problem, of course, was that he was 36, out of practice, and he didn’t have any alpine slopes to train on in Brooklyn. So he set up a ski machine in the boiler room in one of his Two Trees Management buildings, and he spent his late nights there.

This has been his life over the past 12 months: “chasing races” around the planet and sliding back and forth on a ski glider at home in the middle of the night. Sokoli said he maxed out all his credit cards and he is self-financing his Olympic dream, though he did start a GoFundMe and raised $16,000. He now has a gleaming web page, and there was even a press release titled “How Bitcoin and Ether May Help Besnik Sokoli Get To The 2018 Winter Olympics.”

It worked. The secretary general of the Kosovo ski federation invited him as a guest of the team.

“I came very close [to making it on the team],” he said by phone last week. “They took someone else. They were talking about an alternate for me.”

Then he mentioned the bad news: He said he fell while skiing and hurt his shoulder when he reached out to stop his tumble. His doctor told him there was some ligament damage.

Sokoli added that he would be an “ambassador” at the Games since “I’ve done so much for Kosovo.”

But that’s where it gets a little complicated.

The president of the Kosovo Olympic Committee, Besim Hasani, stated in an email that he had never heard of Sokoli and added that Albin Tihiri is the sole skiing competitor at the Games. When pressed, Hasani wrote of Sokoli, “He will come to PyeongChang as a spectator.” Here at the Games, Hasani wrote “I did not see him!” and “He is not a part of [the] delegation!”

Yet the “Superintendent Skier” was very much in PyeongChang, with his wife, wearing a Kosovo Ski Team jacket. He came and he left, a day after the downhill ski event was postponed due to bad weather.

Reached by phone on his way out of town, he explained that he thought he would be able to march at the Opening Ceremony with Kosovo but the IOC “nixed me.” So he didn’t even get a credential. He was upset but upbeat, saying the Kosovo Olympic Committee is “kind of a mafia.” He said he left early because he has kids and a life to lead and he had made it here.

Sokoli said he gave a portion of the GoFundMe away. He had so many people he wanted to help, including a young Kosovo skier who couldn’t afford a trip abroad to compete. He said he made his dream come true, or close enough, and he wanted to pay it forward.

And regardless of his talent level, he was a walking billboard for his homeland. His story was a reporter’s dream: Brooklyn superintendent trains in the boiler room, raises money by GoFundMe and Bitcoin, then flies with his bride to Korea to represent the country from which he fled.

Sokoli is wearing the colors of Team Kosovo, but that is a tale that can be made only in the USA.

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