The soul-patched legend survived being bumped and falling back to last place, and came on strong at the end to make history in the 1,000-meter final. Ohno surpasses long-track speedskating icon Bonnie Blair as American Winter Olympian with the most all-time medals.
VANCOUVER, B.C. — With two laps to go, Apolo Anton Ohno didn’t see history anymore. He saw the tails of his competitors.
He was in last place in the 1,000-meter short-track final, the result of an unfortunate slip, a norm for his hazardous sport. Just seconds earlier, he was in second place and thinking gold medal. Now he was whispering to himself, “Oh boy.”
And that’s when Ohno, the former Federal Way in-line skater turned soul-patched Olympic icon, reminded us why he’s so special.
He’d trained too hard to go down like this, on his night. Ohno had sacrificed like never before to get back to the Winter Olympics, to chase history. All those three-a-day workouts, all those thousands of pounds of weights, all those rigidly nutritious meals — they led him here. An ill-timed slip wasn’t going to wreck his celebration.
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With a single-minded late flurry, Ohno passed Canadian brothers Charles and Francois Hamelin and earned a bronze medal that had seemed unlikely after he nearly fell.
For his determination, the spoils are immortality.
Ohno made history Saturday night at the Pacific Coliseum. He won his seventh Winter Olympics medal and passed long-track speedskater Bonnie Blair as the American with the most medals of all time.
“It feels amazing,” Ohno said. “I wanted to leave my heart and soul on the ice today, and I did.”
On this night, one in which he stood coolly wearing a black jacket with a fur-lined collar before each race, Ohno impressed with his toughness.
It wasn’t the most elegant way to make history, and it won’t quiet detractors who consider Ohno overrated because only two of his medals are gold. But it was a fitting way for a short-track speedskater to become a transcendent Olympian.
In a sport of crashes and disqualifications, shoves and slips, peril and more peril, Ohno survived. He didn’t fall. He lost speed, but he didn’t lose his composure.
South Korea’s Jung-Su Lee took the gold, and his countryman, Ho-Suk Lee, claimed the silver. Ohno took the spotlight.
He crossed the finish line, sighed and waved his hand. He did it, somehow.
Some are calling his accomplishment unprecedented. Some are going with the ridiculous tag of “most decorated Winter Olympian,” which makes him seem like a house at Halloween. Ohno will just say he’s satisfied and think about the rest when his career is over.
“I’m all smiles,” he said.
And what about history?
“It’s a historical night,” he allowed. “Not just because of a label or a record. Because I raced my heart out. I prepared for these Games like I’d never prepared for anything in my life.”
Sometimes, the justification of sweat matters most.
Ohno was the only American in the final because J.R. Celski, another Federal Way in-line skater turned short-track star, didn’t advance past the semifinals. In his semifinal heat, Celski was disqualified for taking out Francois Hamelin. Had he not been disqualified, Celski still would have finished third and missed the final.
“I wasn’t in a qualifying position, and there was contact, and stuff just didn’t go my way,” Celski said. “It’s unfortunate. I just lost my momentum after I passed. I kind of leaned forward, and I came back on my heels, and there was contact.
“I’m not disappointed at all. This is awesome for my first Games.”
He happily deferred to Ohno. This was the night for the man Celski idolizes.
In a news release, Blair said, “I’m very happy for Apolo’s accomplishment.”
Let the debate begin over who’s accomplishment is greater. Five of Blair’s six medals are gold, and the other is silver. Ohno? Two gold, two silver, three bronze. By traditional standards, Blair’s résumé is more awe-inspiring.
But if you saw Saturday’s race, then you understand that excellence in short track isn’t always measured by gold. By enduring in his treacherous sport, Ohno belongs on the top shelf of U.S. Winter Olympians.
Instead of worrying about who’s better, the appropriate reaction is to divide the excellence into different categories. Most impressively excellent: Eric Heiden. Most consistently excellent: Blair. Most daringly excellent: Ohno.
“Our sport is crazy,” Ohno said. “I don’t look back at past medals I’ve won. I look at the struggles and the obstacles it took to get where I am.”
He used all those experiences to put together an unforgettable scurry to immortality Saturday. A little girl dressed in pink wore a fake soul patch on her chin and held up a sign.
It read: “Ohno is Uno.”
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer