Besnik Sokoli Interview | We Speak to the Skiing Kosovan War Refugee Who's Turned Winter Olympic Hopeful
The New Yorker is on the verge of completing the transition from racing novice to Olympic skier
Words by Stuart Kenny | Illustration by Kieron Black
Besnik Sokoli grew up in a country torn apart by war. He was stabbed and shot as a teenager before being smuggled out of his native Kosovo for his own protection, and only really escaped the conflict when he later reunited with his parents and moved to America as a refugee.
These days Besnik works six days a week as the superintendent of 150 different apartments across 10 different buildings in Brooklyn, New York, where he moved in 1999. He now has three children and a wife, born and raised in Brooklyn.
Each morning Besnik gets up at 5.30am to go to the gym, comes home, drops the kids off at school, goes to work, comes home to have dinner and spend time with his family, then returns to his training programme once the kids are asleep. His second training session involves either a pair of boxing gloves or a ‘Skier’s Edge’ - a workout tool built to emulate the act of skiing and build up the muscles involved in the sport.
Besnik only took up ski racing at the start of 2017, but he’s now training to represent his native country of Kosovo in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February next year. And against all the odds, there’s a good chance that he’s actually going to do it.
“It’s definitely doable," he tells us. “I just need the races and the mileage. I just started racing and I’m doing good, so imagine how I’ll do when I get better. Until late I didn’t even have any race equipment either. I just got it, so I still need to get used to all of that, but I’m right there."
“Once I stepped out of the car in Montenegro he told me ‘if I ever see you out fighting in the field, you’ll be the first one to die’..."
Besnik is full of surprises. He speaks in a thick, fast Brooklyn accent. You’d need to be a linguist to work out that he’s actually a war refugee from Kosovo. Or you could just ask him, of course. He’s an incredibly friendly guy, a family man, and as you quickly learn, an eternal optimist.
“I skied until I was about 15 back home in Kosovo. But then everything stopped because of the war. I came here as a refugee and haven’t skied since."
The born-again New Yorker didn’t ditch sports entirely after moving to the US. He played basketball at college and has regularly boxed since then, but he hadn’t so much as stepped into a ski boot in 20 years before deciding to take his kids on a skiing trip earlier this year.
“My father was a ski instructor so I wanted to do what he did and teach my kids, and there was a race course next to where we ended up going, so I decided to join the race, and I won that race. I was looking at these guys going down the hill thinking how fast they were. Little did I know I was actually a lot faster than all of them.
“One of the coaches asked where I raced. I told him it was my first race and he couldn’t believe it. I started Googling where to race around the tri-state area (Connecticut, New York and New Jersey) and found some races and joined those races as well. And the same thing happened. Good results. Very good results.
“I started falling in love with racing and got talking to one of the coaches who asked where I was from. I told him I was from Kosovo and had dual citizenship and he said ‘why don’t you contact the Federation? Maybe you could ski for Kosovo’.
“I thought it was a good idea so I called the Federation and the guy asked me what my name was, then said ‘you know your father taught us how to ski?’. He was one of two or three instructors over there. They said ‘we’ll sign you up and you can represent Kosovo anywhere in the world. Plus, it’s an Olympic year so if you make enough points, you can qualify and come with us!’. Boom. Right there. Blew my mind. Since then I’ve just kept going and kept trying to get the points I need."
The way the qualification system works, any National Olympic Committee can enter one male and one female skier in the slalom and/or giant slalom events as long as that competitor has less than 140 FIS points to their name when the Olympic FIS Points List is published in January.
FIS points are sorted so that, as Besnik puts it, "the champ has zero", and everyone else's respective tally reflects an average of their best races and distance from that of the champ.
Besnik currently has 250 FIS points, 110 points above where he needs to be. He’s planning to head back to South America to remedy that situation by racing in Chile, or if that doesn’t materialise, to head over to Europe to race indoors and get his points there instead.
If getting under the 140 mark sounds like a tough task for someone with less than 12 months experience of the sport he’s competing in, the man himself certainly isn’t phased.
He may not have direct competitive experience, but spending his teenage years in a war torn Kosovo where he took bullets and stab wounds before fleeing the country - at some risk - have prepared him for anything.
“It was a war zone," he says. “Back in the day my father had saved a Serb from drowning. He didn’t know he was a Serb but this was a kid about to drown. It doesn’t matter what colour or what race. This kid grew up to became a high official in the police force. The same police force that was killing everyone and trying to raid houses. He paid the favour of coming to our house and said ‘I am moving my family from Kosovo to Montenegro. I could take your son away from the war so he doesn’t get shot or kidnapped’.
“You don’t know how it is to be under the sniper or God forbid, you could stand on a mine or get shot or stabbed again..."
“So my father said ‘I trust you. I saved your life once. Save my son’. He took me and we went through a war zone; minefields, soldiers coming out of the woods stopping our car. I had to carry his gun pretending I was a Serb. Once I stepped out of the car in Montenegro he told me ‘if I ever see you out fighting in the field, you’re going to be the first one to die’. That was it. We didn’t see each other ever again.
“I was searching for my parents for four or five months after being alone in Montenegro and Albania and Macedonia and finally I found them through a charity service. My father told me I had to go to Macedonia because I had signed up to go to America. At that time Bill Clinton had signed a paper which said the country would take a certain amount of refugees and I was one of them. It took me four days to cross the border and the next day we flew to America."
The 5.30am, twice-daily training sessions don’t seem so rough when you’ve heard the backstory behind how the man got to America. And it makes the fact that Besnik doesn’t feel the pressure when he clips into his racing skis a whole easier to understand.
“Being from Kosovo and having survived the war, and being that I live in Brooklyn and that I’m a father, a married man and a boxer, my mentality is strong," he says. “Sometimes people don’t understand why I’m so happy and content with my life. You don’t know how it is to be under the sniper or God forbid, you could stand on a mine or get shot or stabbed again. That’s why I’m always happy and smiling. It’s not just a cliche, it’s another day in paradise.
“Everyone is so serious at these races and I’m laughing, smiling and just having fun. You know? I’m going as fast as possible and I’m having a blast."
Besnik has spent the past few months chasing points at races around the world, most recently in South Africa and South America. The former was more successful than the latter.
Heavy snow saw nine out of 11 races in Argentina cancelled, and Besnik was disqualified from one of those remaining two races for missing a gate which video evidence later showed he didn’t actually miss.
That spot of bad luck would be nothing compared to the plague of misfortune that met, and almost killed, the New Yorker on his return to the airport in Argentina, though.
“There was so much snow that my car got stuck. I got out and tried to put the chains on and another car hit me dead on. I was probably inches away from death or being punted down the mountain. The guy came out and started crying and we worked it out. Anyway we hear this big boom and you could see this avalanche coming right at the area we were in. I don’t think I’ve ever driven faster uphill in my life.
“We hear this big boom and you could see this avalanche coming right at the area we were in..."
“My windshield was broken, but back on the seat I had the helmet and goggles from skiing and had to put them on, open my door and stick my head out so I could drive because I couldn’t see anything. I went like that for a good 20km and then finally the snow stopped. Then there was a small town nearby where the rental company I had used had a shop. But my car died so I had to push it all the rest of the way and change the flight ticket again to the day after to get back to the US.
“It was a bad couple of hours. After that everything went smooth."
That final sentence very much sums up Besnik’s outlook on life. He makes the best of what is in front of him, ploughs through the hard times and stays positive throughout. No wonder he won’t let anyone deter him from the Olympic dream - a dream being financed entirely by himself and his wife - though actually, there haven’t been many critics of Sokoli’s feel-good story. The public reception has actually been a big motivation.
“I was overwhelmed with the positive feedback from people," he says. “People in America are not as bad as people think - they’re pretty great! Especially in New York.
“The coolest comments I’ve got were that kids wanted to ski with me one day and parents saying they’d had their kids read my story, which is just great! And of course on a second note people asking if they can help with the monetary fund or if they could send anything like a helmet or goggles, which is also really cool because they see that a war refugee, a father, a worker, a husband, has just picked up racing and is doing so well."
Besnik's wife Flutura has raised a full $11,400 through GoFundMe so far, and big name brands in the sport have been helping out the skier as well. Giro recently hooked him up with both a state-of-the-art helmet and a pair of Contact goggles. Sokoli’s gratefulness and humility throughout all this have been admirable enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face.
Understandably the comparisons have been rushing in between Besnik and Eddie the Eagle and the Cool Runnings crew. He admits with a laugh that he sees the similarities, though highlights: “my Federation are awesome people, they just don’t have the monetary funds."
It may seem like insanity to be chasing a spot in the Winter Olympics having only raced for the first time just a few months previously, and to be funding the entire thing from his own pocket, but to Besnik it’s an opportunity he's fully confident he can capitalise on.
“As an Albanian, as a Kosovo person, it would mean the world to me to compete in the Olympic Games," he says. “My father passed away but he’s the one that taught me [how to ski] and I owe everything to him.
“I’m either going to make it or I’m going to die trying..."
“Personally as well, I wanted my kids to love skiing and now they want to race and be in the Olympics and try their best, and to see that as a father… plus other kids who come over and say ‘can you teach me?’ - that is bigger than what I’m trying to do. That just makes my day.
“I know I’m going to do it. I know I’m going to go through. My determination is out there. I’m either going to make it or I’m going to die trying."
And as you should know by now, it's not easy to kill Besnik Sokoli. So remember the name, and if you do see it appear on your television during the Winter Olympics, remember the tale that goes with it - and the moral that anything is possible with enough hard work.