Six months after discovering a natural talent for racing, Besnik Sokoli trains in a boiler room hoping to compete for his native Kosovo.
BROOKLYN—On any given day, building superintendent Besnik Sokoli might be in the boiler room working on the furnace.
Or he might be in the boiler room working on his skiing.
Mr. Sokoli, a war refugee and super of five apartment buildings in the hip Dumbo neighborhood between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, entered his first serious ski race six months ago, when he was 35. Now he’s making a long-shot bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
After work each day, Mr. Sokoli sets aside his walkie-talkie and tool belt, slips on a weighted vest, dons a mask to mimic high-altitude oxygen deprivation, and climbs onto a secondhand ski simulator braced between a broken cooling unit and a tub of snow-white paint. Then he spends 45 minutes swiveling from side to side, imitating a run down a slalom course.
Says Mr. Sokoli: “It doesn’t get any more Brooklyn than this.”
Mr. Sokoli’s natural athletic ability and preternatural competitive drive are surprising world-class skiers, who won’t rule out the possibility he will earn a spot competing for his native Kosovo in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February. He finished near the top in a series of East Coast races this winter and is currently racing in international events in South Africa, Chile and Argentina to try to earn Olympic-qualifying ratings.
“It’s preposterous—but intriguing as all hell,” says University of Connecticut ski coach Bruce Diamond, who finished behind Mr. Sokoli at a race this winter. “If anybody can pull it off, I’m starting to think it’s Nik.”
Mr. Sokoli’s quest calls to mind other unlikely Olympians of lore: the Jamaican bobsled team that caught the public’s imagination at the 1988 Calgary games, and Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, who took up ski jumping in part because Britain had no other Olympic athletes in the event.
Mr. Sokoli raced at the Booster Strap Summer Fun Nationals at Mt. Hood, Oregon, in July.Photo: Jake Nicol/The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Sokoli was born in Kosovo in 1981, when it was still part of Yugoslavia. He skied as a child, but not seriously. Sometimes he would grass-ski on pieces of plastic his dad cut from milk crates.
Boxing was his sport. Compact and powerful—today he crams 190 pounds into his 5-foot-7 frame—Mr. Sokoli fought his way to the finals of the Pristina city championships at 14. Before the bout, he proudly told his dad that at least he would get silver.
His father, he says, slapped him and yanked him from the tournament for displaying an insufficient desire to win. Mr. Sokoli sees the episode as a valuable lesson. “I’m not going to go to the Olympics to experience it and have fun,” he says. “I’m going to push as hard as I can to do way better than I think I can.”
By the time Mr. Sokoli reached his late teens, Yugoslavia had splintered, and Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, was racked by street fighting between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Mr. Sokoli, an Albanian, survived being shot in the face once and stabbed in the back twice. His father sanitized the knife wound with beer and cauterized it with a match, he recalls.
Years earlier, Mr. Sokoli’s father had saved a Serb from drowning; now the same man offered to get 17-year-old Besnik to safety. The escape was harrowing, with Besnik carrying a pistol to pass as a Serbian militiaman.
Mr. Sokoli in the basement of a Brooklyn apartment building where he works as superintendent.
Mr. Sokoli crossed into Montenegro, Albania and finally Macedonia. He found his parents there; they had been ousted from their home at gunpoint after Besnik’s flight. The three resettled in Arizona when he was 18. He arrived with English learned watching “Beverly Hills, 90210”; now barely a trace remains of his Kosovar origins under his thick New York accent.