Seattle's Apolo Ohno, the face of the Games, seeks two more medals to become the most-medaled U.S. Winter Olympian of all time.
To this day, a lot of people think he jumped the gun.
Of course they do, right? It’s the Olympics and it’s Apolo Anton Ohno, and the guy has high drama embedded in his DNA.
It was the last night of competition at the 2006 Turin Winter Games. The curtain closer on a couple of weeks in Italy that had not gone well for Ohno or, for that matter, America.
The 500-meter sprint. This race — one and a quarter times around a track inside a hockey rink — is all about the start. Blink, you lose. High stakes, fried nerves. Chances at redemption. Twice, skaters in the pack of five — coiled up like Lycra-clad snakes at the start line — jumped the starter’s gun.
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So Ohno, being Ohno, figured now would be a good moment to “time the start.”
“You know what? This is it, man!” he told himself. “I’m going to try to time this bad boy.”
That, he did. When the starter’s pistol cracked the third time, Ohno already had a half-stride on the pack. Sprinting with the calm dignity of a cat being chased by Dobermans, Ohno led from start to finish, blasting across the finish line to claim gold.
The feat, if it didn’t save the Olympics for America, at least avoided the indignity of losing in the medal count to the Canadians. It was vintage Ohno.
“Honestly? I think I just timed it perfectly,” he says, four years later. He breaks out into his infectious cackle last month at the Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah, where he was at the end of a cycle of grueling workouts leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games — likely his competitive swan song.
“If you watch it in slow-mo, it looks like I jumped,” he insists. “If you watch it in regular I timed the start.”
He laughs again.
“They didn’t call it back, so … “
So it was written: Ohno’s fourth Olympic medal. Later that night, he would claim a fifth, in the team relay, tying him with speedskating legend Eric Heiden for the most medals won by a U.S. male Winter Olympian.
He has watched that race in slow speed, and in regular. “Thousands of times,” he says.
What he saw was a young man in what really could have been his famous final scene — a walkoff gold medal of which anyone could be proud.
“It was amazing, because it was my last race,” he says, nearly four years after the fact, nibbling on a slice of meat — part of his micromanaged nutrition program — from a portable cooler. “It was one of the most perfect races I ever skated. I could have walked away at that point and been completely satisfied.”
Despite what he calls “a lot of green lights in the Hollywood area,” especially after winning “Dancing With The Stars,” he chose instead to return for one last shot at Olympic glory.
“I’m glad I made the right decision,” he says. “And that I’m here.”
In a few days, the Olympic world likely will be glad, too. Because from the time he was 14, Apolo Anton Ohno has been many things to many people, but boring has never been one of them. His first Olympic medal was won as he crawled across the finish line, blood trailing from one thigh, in Salt Lake City in 2002.
There’s a reason Ohno is the first guy you see when NBC starts endlessly pitching the 2010 Vancouver Games to the public. Lots of them, actually.
Ohno has grown, before our eyes, from a precocious inline-skate punk from Federal Way into a literal Olympics ambassador — a role which, at the advanced age of 27, he takes quite seriously.
His off-ice exploits have given him the sort of fame that few Olympians achieve — even the aforementioned Heiden, whose five-medal performance at a single Games in 1980 stands as one of the great feats in sports history.
It is worth remembering that, thanks to the reality-TV stint, a majority of young fans of AAO, as he is known, never have actually seen the guy skate.
Easily lost in the footlights of his fame is that Ohno, a master of a sport requiring an uncommon marriage of power, finesse, reflex and smarts, is one of the remarkable athletes of his generation. Anyone who believes he is back for a third Olympics simply to garner more sponsorships or keep his name on Twitter has never seen the guy work his day job.
Ohno’s march to Olympics No. 3 has been a carefully orchestrated, borderline-obsessive regimen — a six-month, five-stage, complete lifestyle overhaul, overseen by his personal trainer.
For the last two months of it, Ohno literally has lived to train, subjecting himself to three-a-day workouts. Not for the fainthearted or aerobically challenged, they include long on-ice sessions and even longer off-ice running, sprinting, jumping, and lifting. He thought he was strong going into it. Coming out, he is lifting weights twice as heavy as when he began.
“There’s one thing for sure,” he says. “Come these Games, there’s no one who’s going to be fitter than me. There’s just no way. Whether I can put it together on the ice or not and feel good, that’s a different story. But I know, from a physical training standpoint, nobody’s even close.”
In his 13 years in the sport, Ohno has become an advanced student of short-track. He watches race tape like a football coach. He studies other teams’ training regimens. He has soaked up all the sports-performance knowledge thrown his way in a decade of residence at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and used it to retool his body to compete with younger racers whose legs don’t scream as loudly at the end of the day.
“I’m leaner than I’ve ever been, lighter than I’ve ever been,” says Ohno, who lives in Seattle. “The other thing is, I love what I’m doing, more than I ever have in the past. I really do. This sport has not gotten any easier for me. In fact, it’s gotten harder. But I love it.”
Sometimes, he admits, he has to talk himself into it. That first workout of the day is hard to start. The third one is tough to finish. In between, Ohno in the past several months has frequently taken to the blogosphere, posting multiple daily affirmations on Facebook, Twitter and his Web page.
“Tired, but still pushing on,” he tweeted Jan. 29. “Many distractions right now — yet I’m staying on track.”
“To be or not to be,” he posted another time. “I’m about being better than yesterday. Post-2010, come train with me — I’ll help you achieve your goals!”
Another day: “No distractions. Make a step in the rt direction 2day. Get in yr zone. Stay focused. Live now!”
It is manna to his many fans. But Ohno says all the sports-psych stuff is for his benefit, as well.
“It’s almost like reiteration of what I want to feel like,” he says. “It’s almost like reminding myself, and motivating myself: ‘Hey, look where you’re at today. Look where you’ve got to go.’ “
Ohno gets mail almost daily from fans who tell him he has, in some way, changed their lives. It is humbling, and also, in some ways, embarrassing. He thinks to himself: “All I’ve really ever done is skate.”
He plans to offer payback via a post-Games nutritional-supplement business venture, the 8Zone, which will incorporate the decade of sport science Ohno has absorbed. If the business is profitable, he plans to plow money back into Olympic sports, through sponsorships.
In the short term, however, the ice at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum is his sole focus.
“This is very special,” he says of the Vancouver Games, the site of his first competitive races as a young teen. “It’s special for my father, for me, for all my friends who are going to be there.”
His course, near and far, is set. Unlike most Winter Olympians, Ohno has enough sponsorship money to keep him financially comfortable — and a career course is laid out before him. And he is savvy enough to relish every remaining step of what he always has referred to as a journey.
“When I’m done skating, I guarantee you that I will not look back and remember standing on the podium,” he says, looking wistful. “I’m going to remember these days — being with the team. Training alone, in my basement. Training when everybody else is sleeping. Doing things that nobody else is doing. Digging down. Seeing what kind of character I truly have. I love that stuff.”
With a single medal in Vancouver, he would tie Bonnie Blair for the most by a U.S. Winter Olympian. With that and another medal — Ohno will be a favorite in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and team relay — he would become the most-medaled U.S. Winter Olympian of all time.
He takes that challenge seriously. He wants that place in history — badly. He knows it will take everything he has done up to now, plus the usual luck necessary in one of the most unpredictable sports in the world, to get there.
But make no mistake: When the lights go up in Vancouver, it’s game on for Apolo Ohno. And dancing is not in the cards.
“I’ve never prepared like this in my life — for anything,” he says. “I want to leave nothing on the table.”