Ohno, Apolo Anton

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Apolo Anton Ohno

1982-

American speed skater

Short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno was the darling of American sports fans during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. The 19-year-old heartthrob with the soul patch was heavily favored to finish with medals in four events at those games. Although in the end he left with only two-a gold and a silver-he was inspiring for his athleticism, for the difficulties that he had to overcome, and for his good sportsmanship in the face of contested races and death threats.

Rebellion

Ohno's father, Yuki Ohno, grew up in Tokyo, Japan, but he left the country in the early 1970s, at the age of 18. He became a hairdresser, and after traveling the world he settled down in Seattle, Washington in 1980,

opened his own shop, Yuki's Diffusions, and married an American named Jerrie Lee. Apolo was born in 1982, but his mother left a year later and since then has not had any contact with Apolo.

Yuki Ohno struggled to raise his son alone, but despite his best efforts by the time Apolo reached his early teens he was already getting into serious trouble. At the same time, Apolo was interested in sports and was an accomplished swimmer and inline skater. Yuki did everything possible to encourage his son to choose sports over crime, so when Apolo saw short-track speed skating on television at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and wanted to try it, Yuki drove him to competitions all across the country.

Opportunity

At one competition in 1995 Patrick Wentland, a speed-skating coach from the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, saw Apolo Ohno skate and persuaded the center to bend its rules and admit Ohno even though he had not reached the minimum age of 15. Yuki Ohno was thrilled at this opportunity, but Apolo Ohno was not so sure. When, in June 1996, Yuki took Apolo to the airport to catch a flight to Lake Placid, Apolo called one of his friends to come pick him up as soon as he was out of Yuki's sight. A few weeks later, Yuki took Apolo to Lake Placid himself.

Apolo Ohno was not interested in the tough exercise regimen that he was supposed to be following at the Olympic Training Center. In fact, whenever the skaters went out on a 5-mile run, Ohno would slip away from the group and go to Pizza Hut. Then, in August, the speed skaters were given the results of their body fat tests, and Ohno's was the highest of the group. Wentland recalled to Sports Illustrated 's S. L. Price that after that, "He came up to me and said, 'I don't want to be the fattest, I don't want to be the slowest, I want to be the best.' Every workout from then on, he had to win. I'd never seen that kind of turnaround so fast." A year later, at age 14, Ohno became the youngest U.S. short-track speed-skating champion ever.

Disappointment

Ohno was a favorite going into the 1998 Olympic trials, but he finished sixteenth-last-at that competition and nearly quit skating. Yuki drove him up into the mountains near Seattle and left him alone in a secluded cabin for a week to consider what he wanted to do. One day he was running in the pouring rain for his third workout of the day. "I had a hole in my shoe and I was getting a huge blister and I was just so tired. I stopped and sat on a rock on the side of the road," he told Lynn Zinser of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. He sat and thought and "realized that if I really desired to keep speedskating that I would keep running. I got back up and kept running." Ohno reclaimed his national title the next year.

Chronology

1982Born May 22 in Seattle, Washington
1983Ohno's parents separate
1994Begins skating after seeing on television short-track skating at the Lillehammer Olympics
1996Begins training at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York
1997Becomes the youngest U.S. short-track champion ever
1998Finishes last at the U.S. Olympic trials
2002Featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated
2002Named one of the 50 most beautiful people of 2002 by People Weekly

Two Controversial Medals

Short-track races are often won not by the fastest skater, but by the skater most skilled at avoiding the sport's frequent crashes, and Ohno's first event at the 2002 Olympics, the 1,000 meter, was no different. In the final heat Ohno was leading only meters from the finish when four racers tangled up and all crashed. Australian skater Steven Bradbury had been in last place, far enough behind all of the other skaters that he was able to avoid them and win his country's first Winter Olympic gold ever. Ohno crawled across the finish line for a silver, rode to the podium in a wheelchair, and then went to get stitches to close a gash on his thigh where he had collided with another skater's blade. Ohno declined to request a rerace and accepted his misfortune with a shrug, saying, "That is short track."

Four days later Ohno raced in the final heat of the 1,500-meter event. He finished second, behind South Korean Kim Dong-Sung, but Kim was disqualified for cross-tracking, defined as illegally skating in front of another skater (in this case Ohno) to prevent him from passing, and Ohno was awarded the gold. This decision, although well received by the largely American crowd, raised a fuss in the rest of the world. Kim threw his South Korean flag to the ice and stormed out, and another racer, Italy's Fabio Carta, suggested that "we should use a rifle on Ohno." Enough threatening e-mails, some of which referred to the 1,000-meter crash as well, were sent to Ohno through the U.S. Olympic Committee Web site to crash its server for nine hours. The South Koreans threatened to boycott the closing ceremonies and to sue, but the International Skating Union refused to reconsider its decision.

Ohno failed to win a medal in his final two events, the 500-meter and the 5,000-meter relay. He was disqualified during the semifinals of the 500 meter for pushing another racer, Japan's Satoru Terao, when he tried to pass him, and the American relay team finished fourth after one member, Rusty Smith, caught his skate on a lane marker block and fell.

Future Hopes

When the Winter Olympics are held in 2006, Ohno will be only 23 years old. The average speed skater peaks at 24. Ohno's legion of fans should have many more years of spectacular performances to look forward to, but even if Ohno never wins another race, he will still be remembered for the inspiring stories he provided in 2002.

Awards and Accomplishments

1997, 1999, 2001-02U.S. short-track champion
1999World junior short-track champion
2001World Cup overall, 500-meter, 1,000-meter, and 1,500-meter champion
2001World Short Track Championships, 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter relay
2001Sets the American record for 500 meter, 41.628 seconds, December 21
2002Wins gold medal in 1,500 meter and silver medal in 1,000 meter at Olympics

CONTACT INFORMATION

Address: c/o Nick Paulenich, Public Relations Director, U.S. Speedskating, Utah Olympic Oval, 5662 South 4800 West, Kearns, UT 84118. Email: [email protected]

FURTHER INFORMATION

Periodicals

Armstrong, Jim. "Ohno's Big Finish Slips Away Twice." Denver Post (February 24, 2002): C-01.

. "S. Korea Raises Stink on Skating Lawsuit: Boycott Threatened if Ohno's Gold Not Stripped." Denver Post (February 22, 2002): A-13.

Borzilleri, Meri-Jo. "It's Showtime for Apolo." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (February 15, 2002): K3850.

. "It's Time for Ohno's Star Power to Start Shining." Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO; February 16, 2002): Olympics3.

. "Ohno Misses Medals: Disqualification, Fourth Place Fail to Add to Collection." Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO; February 24, 2002): Olympics1.

. "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Anti-Ohno E-mails Flood Olympic Web Site in Wake of Controversy." Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO; February 22, 2002): Olympics5.

Duenwald, Mary. "American Gold." Teen People (February 1, 2002): 82+.

Hummer, Steve. "Wipeout!: Gold Gives U.S. the Slip as Skaters Fall in a Heap." Atlanta Journal-Constitution (February 17, 2002): A1.

Justice, Richard. "On the Right Track." Houston Chronicle (February 16, 2002): 3.

Lopez, John P. "Reversal of Misfortune: Korean's Disqualification Becomes a Touch of Gold for Ohno." Houston Chronicle (February 21, 2002): 1.

Price, S. L. "Launch of Apolo." Sports Illustrated (February 4, 2002): 122+.

. "Speed Thrills." Sports Illustrated (February 25, 2002): 46+.

"Stars on Ice Show City the Need for Speed." Europe Intelligence Wire (December 3, 2002).

Zinser, Lynn. "A Long Road to Olympic Short-Track." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (December 15, 2001): K7239.

Other

"Apolo Anton Ohno." U.S. Speedskating. http://www.usspeedskating.org/rosters/Ohno.html (January 5, 2003).

Poitevent, Evelyn. "Q & A: Apolo Anton Ohno." USA Weekend.com. http://www.usaweekend.com/02_issues/020407/020407whosnews_ohno.html (January 5, 2003).

Sketch by Julia Bauder