Three-time Olympian Apolo Ohno has been the top short-track skater in the United States since 2001, when he became the first American to win the overall World Cup, for the 2000-01 season. Ohno has since won the overall title twice more, in 2003 and 2005. He also has won five Olympic medals, two gold, tying speed skater Eric Heiden for the most career winter medals by a U.S. man. Ohno has at least one medal in each of the Olympic distances: gold in the 500m; silver and bronze in the 1000m; gold in the 1500m; and bronze in the 5000m relay.
Three-time Olympian Apolo Ohno has been the top short-track skater in the United States since 2001, when he became the first American to win the overall World Cup, for the 2000-01 season. Ohno has since won the overall title twice more, in 2003 and 2005. He also has won five Olympic medals, two gold, tying speed skater Eric Heiden for the most career winter medals by a U.S. man. Ohno has at least one medal in each of the Olympic distances: gold in the 500m; silver and bronze in the 1000m; gold in the 1500m; and bronze in the 5000m relay. Ohno has won every national title since 2001, earning his 10th consecutive win in September 2009, and has 12 overall national titles.
Ohno again qualified to skate all three individual events in Vancouver, by winning each at Olympic trials, and defending his national title. Ohno will also skate on the 5000m relay, giving him four chances at a medal. “It feels really good,” Ohno said of qualifying for his third Olympic team. “We have a very, very strong team.” In Vancouver, Ohno will be competing about three hours from his hometown of Seattle.
Apolo was born to a Caucasian-American mother, Jerrie Lee, and Japanese-born father. Ohno’s parents divorced when he was an infant and he was raised by his father, Yuki Ohno, who owns a Seattle hair salon called Yuki’s diffusion. Yuki was the driving force behind Apolo’s skating career, driving him to competitions and encouraging him to push himself. Yuki also persuaded his then-14-year-old son to move to Lake Placid in 1996 to train under Pat Wentland. Apolo was initially not pleased about the move, and skipped his flight to New York after Yuki dropped him off at the airport. Apolo had called friends to pick him up, and he remained with them for a week, until Yuki was able to talk him into it. Yuki then accompanied Apolo on the flight to Lake Placid, and personally dropped him off with Wentland. He has had little contact with his biological mother and as of 2002, has expressed no interest in knowing her or his older half-brother.
Ohno’s unique first name was given to him by his father, who combined the Greek words “Ap”, meaning “steering away from”, and “lo”, meaning “look out, here he comes.” Yuki says his son’s middle name, “Anton”, means priceless. Ohno also goes by “Chunkie,” a holdover from his youth, when he was one of the stockier members of his roller skating team.
Ohno became interested in short track at age 12, while watching the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Despite his late start, it took Ohno only two years to become the best short-track skater in the United States. At 14, after training under Pat Wetland in Lake Placid for just six months, Ohno claimed his first overall title at the U.S. Championships, becoming the youngest national champion ever. Ohno’s success made him a likely candidate to make the 1998 U.S. Olympic Team, but he struggled with his fitness after leaving the Lake Placid training center and finished 16th at the Olympic Trials.
Apolo became a mainstream celebrity after he won season four of the popular show “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007. Other athletes to win “dancing with the Stars” were Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, NFL player Emmitt Smith and auto racer Helio Castroneves.
On April 26, 2007, he was inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame, an award which honors achievements of Asian Americans.
After you won the 500m in Torino, which you called the perfect race, did you think you would continue skating?
Apolo: Following my perfect race in Torino, the 500 meters when I won gold, I wasn’t thinking about my future at all in terms of in the sport. Honestly, I just was in the moment. I was present. I was enjoying all of the obstacles I had to overcome to get to that point. And being able to cross the line first was just a bonus for me. It wasn’t until a couple months later when I really started to contemplate and think about, ‘OK, what do I want to do? Do I want to go another four years of my life? Do I want to dedicate and sacrifice as much of my time for something that has been so dear to my heart?’ And that is when I really started to think about it.
What were some of the factors? You mentioned sacrificing your regular life.
Apolo: Every Olympic athlete prepares differently. For me, I am 100 percent into the sport. And if I decide to really make a crucial career decision to say, ‘This is something I want to do,’ I want to leave no stone unturned in my preparation. I think that allows me to be able to go to a competition, finish the race and, regardless of the outcome, I am able to step of the ice, still hold my chin high, proud and happy that I went out there and competed my best. It is not up to me whether I win or lose. Ultimately, this might not be my day. And it is that philosophy towards sports, something that I really truly live by. I am emotional. I want to win. I am hungry. I am a competitor. I have that fire. But deep down, I truly enjoy the art of competing so much more than the result.
What makes a race perfect for you?
Apolo: Well, it is hard to talk it through from start to end. The perfect race is different for everyone. It was perfect because of where my lane position was on the starting line. They are picked randomly before each race. I had the inside lane, which is at the fastest starting position to the first block. I was able to lead from start till finish, which is very rare. And I just had total control over the race. I was completely immersed, I was in the zone, my flow was going, everything was going smoothly. When I got to the rink that day, it wasn’t about trying to win. Obviously I wanted to win. But more, thinking back, I was really focused on the process of what it is going to take to be able to stand on top of the podium rather than I just want to win, I want to win. I was really concentrating on just skating. And I think that is why when I come across that line, you saw the look on my face. I didn’t even know I looked like that. My helmet is tilted. I am like — you know, kind of freaking out because I really was almost in awe and disbelief. I mean that race is 40 seconds long, give or take a couple of seconds. But when I was out there, it felt like it was 40 minutes. Literally, everything slows down. And I have four guys behind me basically trying to eat me. So it was an amazing, amazing experience.
Do you remember the moments from after the race, when you knew you had won, before you actually got the medal, and what you were thinking?
Apolo: The moments before I got my medal, just going through all the people in my life, all of the teammates, the family members, the supporters. Just thanking them and being grateful that I was able to deliver, you know? I always think about that old baseball story: two strikes, three balls, in the last inning, bases are loaded, and you hit a grand slam in the last pitch. And that is really what it was for me. It was basically the last day of the Olympics, essentially – my last race, my last chance to win a gold medal. It was a race that I was not favored in, and it went perfectly. What more can I ask?
And what is it like once you are actually standing on that podium? What goes through your head?
Apolo: Standing on the podium, there’s so many different emotions. For me, it is like you rewind, back four, five, six, 10 years, and then you fast forward again. And you just go through all the hardships you had, the obstacles, the challenges, when you were at your lowest, the times where it is hardest, when you were training alone, that is what I really thought about. And that is kind of who makes me inside, as a core, as Apolo Anton Ohno, is those days when I felt like I was beaten, but I decided to get back up, and continue to climb my mountain, so to speak. And I am still climbing it today.
What are all the things that have to go right for a perfect performance?
Apolo: Well, what people didn’t realize in 2006 was that I was having equipment problems. I was injured. I had a little bit of a tear in my left hamstring. I had torn some ligaments in my left ankle. I didn’t want to let anyone know. I didn’t want to show any sign of weakness. When you are at the Olympic Games, it comes down to a ten thousandth of a hair between making the next round or winning a race or getting second or third. And I didn’t want any self-doubt. So all the elements that went into a perfect race, it was just so fluent that day. Everything seemed to go as if it was supposed to happen in a certain order, whether I had control of it or not. And there is a little bit of luck involved, there was definitely a little bit of skill involved. I had to be armed mentally and physically that day. And I just skated out of my mind, you know?
Is that the way you look at your career, too? That everything was supposed to play out a certain way?
Apolo: Well, I definitely don’t hold a crystal ball, and I look forward to the unexpected. It is something that I kind of thrive for, and that is why I love short track so much, because it is such a volatile sport. Anything can happen anytime. But I really, truly believe there is a reason why I am still here skating. There is a reason why I am leading the U.S. team for my third Olympic Winter Games. I will be in the best physical shape of my life. Mentally I am going to be in the best state of my life. And I compete now on a different level. Not so much for results – obviously I want to go out there, I want to break records, I want to win medals. But it seems like it is just so much more pure. The art of competing is what I really, truly enjoy. And when I really go back and think about it, the preparation, the process, the training, all those aspects are something that I really love to do. I don’t know, it is a part of me. It is in my blood.
Do you think about being able to making history in Vancouver by becoming the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time?
Apolo: I do think about that. When I am out there on the road bike or if I am out there running by myself. I am human. I’ll be jogging, and it is like, a little Apolo on each shoulder. This one is enticing me, ‘Hey, you have the opportunity to become the best [U.S.] Winter Olympic athlete of all time, you can break all records.’ And that is an amazing opportunity. But I almost don’t want to succumb to that. Obviously I want to go to the games, and I want to bring home medals. Hopefully I will have four chances, at least maybe three to four, to get medals. Then there is this guy on this side who is saying, ‘You know what, man? You love the sport, and there is a reason why you are doing this. Maybe it’s not about results. Just stay true to your heart. Do what you love and the results will come.’
The photo credit is: NBC / USOC