KEARNS, Utah – Apolo Anton Ohno is strolling around the Utah Olympic Oval, snappily dressed in a black sport coat and slacks, having traded his skates for a microphone.
The 31-year-old from Seattle eagerly poses for pictures and enthusiastically chats up anyone who is willing to listen to his message: Short-track speedskating is a thrilling sport worthy of your attention.
“I love it,” Ohno said. “It’s fun to watch.”
But it is hard to envision it being as much fun in Sochi, Russia, as it was during the past three Olympics, now that the guy with the soul patch is working from a broadcast booth rather than darting around the ice.
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He was dynamic, scooting past rivals in the blink of an eye. He was fearless, willing to throw his body into a sliver of an opening no one else could see. He was charismatic, with a bandanna on his head, a stylish wisp of hair beneath his lip, and a name that implied greatness.
He was, quite simply, the best, stepping onto the medal podium more than any other U.S. Winter Olympian.
The eight-time Olympic medalist feels a duty to keep the momentum going.
“I’m not on the ice,” Ohno said. “But I’m still representing the United States in some form or fashion. I’m still an Olympic athlete. I just happen to be on the other side of the lines and hopefully bringing some different perspective for viewers to watch. Whatever it takes. I’d like to believe that people actually, really like the sport.
“When I watch it, it just looks impossible. It doesn’t make sense. Guys are whipping around the rink at 40 mph, skating on blades that are one-millimeter thick, passing people.”
Before Ohno, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone in this country who gave a flip about short track.
Then he came along at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, a brash 19-year-old with all the makings of stardom.
Suddenly, short track was must-see viewing during the Olympics.
Everyone remembers him crawling across the finish line with a gash in his leg, claiming a silver medal after being taken out in a last-lap crash. And picking up his first gold when another skater was disqualified, setting off fierce protests in South Korea. And wrapping up his career four years ago by claiming his sixth, seventh and eighth medals at the Vancouver Olympics.
Ohno will move to the broadcast booth in Sochi, serving as an NBC commentator at the short-track rink.
“I’m analyzing, looking at their faces before they get on the ice, watching them post (race), watching them with their coaches, talking to their coaches, trying to get inside information,” he said, prepping for his new gig this weekend during the U.S. short-track Olympic trials in suburban Salt Lake City.
Ohno first worked for NBC during the 2012 Summer Olympics, which was where he got one last urge to compete after watching Michael Phelps in the pool.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I can do this again. I feel pretty good. I know all the mistakes I’ve made up this point. I know how to train. I know my body better. I know how not to overtrain,’ ” Ohno recalled. “Then I was like, ‘Wait a second. What are you talking about?’ ”
He returned to his residence in Southern California and came to grips with the end of his career.
Probably a good call. Nothing would have been sadder than to see him in Sochi getting passed by guys he could have beaten easily in his prime.
It is up to others to pick up the slack.
J.R. Celski of Federal Way is one of those hoping to fill Ohno’s massive void, the winner of two bronze medals in Vancouver and the best American short-track hope heading into these Winter Games.
Asked if the sport can maintain its Ohno-like popularity, at least during three weeks in February, Celski replied, “I hope so. It’s definitely one of the most exciting events during the Games.
“ It’s unfortunate that it’s not on television more in the four years when the Games are not present. But I think we have a really good following when the Olympics come around. People get excited, really excited to watch short track.”
Indeed, the place was packed Friday for the Olympic trials, the first of three days of pack-style racing, the kind that will surely come with spills and thrills.
It was a promising sign for the post-Apolo era.
“When I started in this sport,” Ohno said, “there was nothing but parents in the stands.”
But there is no getting around it.
Without that guy with the soul patch, it’s not as exciting as it was before.