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.