As the Vancouver Winter Olympics are about to launch, U.S. short-track speedskaters admire all that Apolo Ohno has accomplished in his sport, and there's no hint of jealousy.
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Before Apolo Anton Ohno, almost nobody watched short-track speedskating.
The sport was too quirky. The difference between winning and losing, between gold and gone, was too whimsical. It was human hydro racing. The last skater standing won, or so it seemed.
“It’s the kind of sport where you have to prepare yourself and then hope that you’re chosen by the gods,” U.S. skater Jordan Malone said Tuesday.
Sometimes, the guy who crosses the finish line first doesn’t win. Sometimes skaters jump the starting gun and get away with it. Sometimes, if there is a major crash in front, the slowest skater can win.
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“It’s very unpredictable and very dangerous,” U.S. women’s team member Allison Baver said.
Again, human hydros.
Before Ohno, short track was considered a stepchild sport. It was the place skaters went when they couldn’t make it in long track. It was the Arena Football League to long track’s NFL.
It was frozen roller derby.
Then the Seattle-area native took up the sport and started winning gold medals and made short-track speedskating quadrennially relevant. His athleticism legitimized short track.
He was charismatic. He got a Nike contract. He was invited to Bill Clinton’s salons. He became one of NBC’s faces of the Winter Games. He was like nobody else his sport had ever seen.
“He’s our Babe Ruth. He’s our heavy hitter,” Malone said. “He’s the face of our sport, both socially and performance-wise.”
Ohno dances with the stars on national television. Then he works out with his teammates as if he has never won a race, as if he still has everything to prove. He has won five Olympic medals, but he trains with the hunger of a newcomer.
“He is hands down the best athlete this sport has ever brought to the table,” said Baver, his former girlfriend. “And to train with an athlete like that every day is pretty cool. To win a gold medal, like he’s done, and to keep going, with all the other opportunities outside of the sport that he has been offered, you have to have a passion.
“He’s never satisfied. He’s always looking for more. Skating is something he absolutely loves, and I kind of look at him as like a Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong comes back because he loves it and that’s it. And I know that the only reason Apolo is skating at these Olympic Games is because he loves it.”
Ohno’s star is transcendent. He is charismatic enough that he could give it all up and begin a career in Hollywood. Instead he has come to Vancouver to compete for more hardware and to keep the light shining on his sport.
“He inspires dreams,” Malone said. “He brings dreamers up to a new level.”
So forget the medals. Ohno, 27, who has been racing since he was 14, practically gave birth to his sport. He gave people a reason to watch it and skaters a reason to compete in it.
“We’re really trying to take advantage of the opportunities that have been given us,” Malone said. “To have a superstar in our sport, well, he’s the reason I got into speedskating. To see a guy who came from in-line skating, just like me, then to see what he’s accomplished, it’s inspiring. He inspired me and J.R. (Celski). It’s what inspired most of the guys on the team. He’s the reason we are all here.”
Ohno is the reason NBC will be watching when the first event, the 1,500 meters, begins on Saturday night. And he is part of the reason Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and “Colbert Nation” have raised money for the sport.
“Believe me, nobody on our team is jealous of him,” Malone said. “Nobody is sitting around asking, ‘Why is he getting all this attention? Why does he have all this money? Why does he have all these endorsements?’ We see how hard he works. We see all the time he puts in.
“When a guy’s your idol, like Apolo is, you wait for the shiny gloss coating to wear off. You wait to find a weakness, but it doesn’t happen. He’s just an amazing dude. We get to train with him every day, and it’s not intimidating to us. It’s not like he’s trying to put his thumb on us. It’s just that he leads, and we try to follow.”
Apolo Ohno shines the light on his quirky sport, and the other short-track skaters warm themselves in his glow.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com