It's well past noon when the most famous resident of the U.S. Olympic Training Center's Building 10 shuffles down the stairs and heads to the dining hall. Rising late after a...
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It’s well past noon when the most famous resident of the U.S. Olympic Training Center’s Building 10 shuffles down the stairs and heads to the dining hall.
Rising late after a late-night flight home from a World Cup race in yet another winter-sports garden spot — Saguenay, Quebec — he looks sleepy and disheveled in loose sweats and flip-flops.
Thousands of rabid, young female fans around the world might find this difficult to accept, but closer examination reveals it to be nonetheless true: Apolo Ohno is having a bad hair day.
Being chased around in tiny circles at insane speeds by squadrons of young, lightning-quick guys on Ginsu-knife ice skates is enough to eventually give a guy gray hair — or at least an unkempt ‘do.
Relax, ladies. It’s only temporary.
An hour later, Ohno, 22, is showered, changed and relaxing on a sofa in the lobby of the fenced-in, institutional training complex he calls home, ready to talk.
“I’m pretty happy,” says Ohno, the Seattle native who took up an obscure ice sport as a young teen, rode it all the way to the Salt Lake City Olympics and wound up at a lot of parties hosted by people like Elton John, Bill Clinton and Halle Berry.
“Last year I just wasn’t happy with my performance,” Ohno says. “For me to be able to enjoy the sport I have to be happy, one way or the other. It shows this year.”
After four World Cup events this season, Ohno once again leads the short-track speedskating world in overall points, rebounding from what was to him a disappointing 2003 season even though he won the overall World Cup title. With a new training regimen, he says he’s now laser-focused on the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
“Obviously, I’m still hungry,” he says. “I want to win. The desire’s still there.”
The lone wolf
This can only be good news for the U.S. Olympic Committee, which looks 13 months ahead to Turin and drools at the prospect of the Ohno Show, Vol. II, being beamed into billions of homes worldwide.
Volume I was fairly memorable. Ohno, blessed with the sort of looks, athletic prowess and charisma that makes marketing execs stammer, was a scene stealer in Salt Lake, with the famous, stumble-across-the-finish silver medal in the 1,000 meters and that infamous 1,500-meter gold medal that still has the entire Korean peninsula in full snit.
When the flame is lit in Turin, the Koreans, along with the Chinese, Canadians, Japanese, Italians and everyone else irked by his success, will be coming after him — looking not to simply beat him, but take him out.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Ohno says. “And fun.”
Yuki Ohno, his dad and unofficial manager, isn’t so sure.
“They have skaters whose only interest is to wreck him, make him fall so their countrymen will advance,” Yuki says. “That’s going to be the next Winter Olympics, no doubt about it.”
Since the 2002 Games, opposing nations allegedly have conspired to foil Ohno through “team skating” — cooperating with team members in a race to block him out. It’s illegal, but a tough call for officials asked to read skaters’ minds. It often works, particularly for nations such as Korea and China that have seemingly endless stables of talented skaters.
“He always will be the lone wolf in the pack,” his father laments. “He’s like Lance Armstrong without the peloton.”
A winning atmosphere
Ohno almost seems to get jazzed by this: It simply means, he says, that he’ll need to be just that much tougher, smarter and luckier to repeat his Salt Lake medal haul in Italy.
He has launched a specific program to do it. It starts with a lifestyle that, for a guy with the money, fame and youth to do whatever he wants, will be seen by many as oddly monastic, especially for a sports star.
Ohno has chosen to remain a permanent resident of the Colorado Springs training center, where he lives in a small, dormitory-style apartment. It’s a place he has called home for six years, and for an athlete, it’s a fairly pleasant — albeit austere — cocoon.
Immediately downstairs is a full-time cafeteria, where he can eat what he wants, when he wants. Just outside are a full range of elite-athlete training facilities, gear and coaches. Many U.S. and even foreign athletes drop in at the center for intensive doses of training, physical therapy and rehab. Ohno is the most prominent of a handful of Olympians who live here full time. Many other training-center devotees live in private Colorado Springs homes.
“There are a lot of things about it that are nice,” Ohno says. “But you’re basically living in, like, small dorms. It’s not exactly the ideal bachelor pad, you know what I mean?”
But the pluses outweigh that.
“I think it’s easier to keep a clear head here,” Ohno says. “I’m surrounded by world-class athletes 24/7. The intensity and the energy is always there, radiating off all the athletes, because everybody who’s here wants to win, all the time.”
He still dreams of and even surfs the Internet for his own pad. But little of the post-Salt-Lake cash has been spent on splurges. He did buy father Yuki, a longtime Seattle hair stylist who raised Apolo alone in Federal Way, a nice home in Edmonds last year. He also bought himself a Lexus — the fanciest car, it has been observed, in the Olympic Training Center parking lot.
But that’s about it. Many of his friends don’t understand his restraint, he says, laughing.
“I’ve been here since I was 16,” he says. “If I stay here through ’06, another year or so, it might be, like, a record or something. My friends always give me flak about that. They’re like, ‘When are you gonna move off? Your rims are getting dirty, man. You’re parked outside!’ ”
On track to success
Seattle will always be home, but Ohno says he loves the training complex, partially for the built-in sacrifice it implies. Yet he almost left it all behind this past summer for greener training pastures in Canada.
Ohno still would have competed for America, but he became so frustrated with the state of U.S. speedskating that he was poised to jump ship to Calgary, Alberta, for training. It was mostly about coaching and stability.
The U.S. short-track team has introduced a new head coach every year since the Salt Lake Olympics. Ohno, who publicly protested last year’s firing of coach Stephen Gough, has butted heads with his sport’s federation numerous times.
It all reached a boiling point last summer. Ohno had a U-Haul truck ready to move him to Calgary, where friend and teammate Shani Davis trained under Canadian coach Derrick Campbell, a former champion racer, Yuki Ohno says.
U.S. Speedskating officials scrambled. The federation’s president, longtime short-track skater Andy Gabel, quickly hired Campbell as U.S. Speedskating’s short-track program manager. Campbell promptly relocated to Colorado Springs. And Ohno stayed put.
“We certainly would have been disappointed if Apolo would have left our programs,” Gabel said last week. “But I think now we’ve turned the corner with Apolo, and the people we’ve brought in are the right people to lead our program to success. The results bear that out.”
The people include new head coach Li Yan, one of the first great female stars of the sport in China. The results are, indeed, notable: Ohno not only has regained his past form, but the traditionally overmatched U.S. women’s squad suddenly has begun moving up in world rankings.
Ohno says he likes working with Yan and Campbell, a “recent” athlete who understands the ins and outs of training and racing, and is quick to point out the success of his female teammates.
Of course, Ohno now has more than a passing interest in the success of the women’s squad, his father notes: Apolo and teammate Allison Baver, 24, a fellow Olympian and training-center inhabitant, have been dating for more than a year.
Ohno insists it’s not all that serious, says his father, who of course worries that a relationship would distract his son. “He doesn’t have time for a relationship,” Yuki says, almost wishing out loud.
Yuki shrugs. “Apolo just says, ‘Dad, don’t worry about it.’ ”
On to Turin
If Ohno has been distracted by anything, it appears to have been in a good way. The past summer of discontent is fully behind him, he says.
He intends to win the World Cup overall title again this spring, even without competing in the March team championships in Korea. Yuki says Apolo likely will skip that race, as he did another Korean event last year, because of Internet death threats from rabid fans still irked by the gold medal Apolo was awarded after the disqualification of a Korean skater in Salt Lake.
He intends to carry all that momentum straight into Turin, where another date with televised destiny surely awaits next February.
Ohno wants another gold medal, badly. But he’s been around his crash-and-burn sport — in which racers skate on knife-edge blades at 40 mph — long enough to know he can do everything right and still see it all go bad in a fraction of an instant.
“You think, physically you’ve got all the tools,” Ohno says, grinning at what must be a rash of on-ice memories. “Mentally you’re like a rock. And then you go and slip, maybe you slip on some bad ice, and some, like, 14-year-old Korean kid goes whizzing by you. You’re like, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“You know, the kid weighs like 125 pounds. He’s got the body of an 11-year-old schoolgirl. And he’s physically one of the most talented athletes on the face of the planet. You’re just like, ‘Why? How does this happen?’ ”
Little accommodation is made here for moping. If Ohno ever feels self-pity welling up, all he has to do is look around. Beside him on the weight machines, on the track, in the training room and at lunch every day are athletes who have struggled for years, sometimes decades, just to live that dream of having a shot at an Olympic medal.
“They’ve given up everything they have toward the sport,” he says, shaking his head in admiration. “Everything. I think that’s unbelievable. I see all the sweat, all the emotions. I see how bad they want it, and the amount of pain they go through to achieve their dreams. I think it’s awesome. I’ve always loved amateur sports because of that — because of the struggle.
“It’s the stuff that makes amateur athletes special.”
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org