Even his name speaks of speed - Apolo Anton Ohno. And what would you expect from a 19-year-old American short track speedskater who has a chance at picking up as many as four gold medals at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Ohno's transition from a rebellious youth in Seattle, Washington, to a world class athlete was not always easy.
The athletic talent was always there. Before taking up speedskating, Apolo Anton Ohno was a state champion swimmer in the breaststroke, and he won a national title as an inline skater. But as the son of a hard working single father from Japan, Ohno often found himself without much supervision. He rebelled, hanging out with a group of troublemakers that spent their time drinking, smoking and getting into mischief.
But in an episode that would change his life, Ohno found himself watching the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics on television with his father. They saw short track speedskating for the first time, and something clicked. "I didn't even know about short track until 1994," he said. "I saw it in '94 with my dad. We watched every Winter Olympics and we saw it. I was an inline speedskater at the time and I just thought it would be a good idea for me to try."
Ohno joined a Tacoma speedskating team and by the end of the year had broken the age group record for 12-year-olds in the 1,000 meters. The U.S. national team coach saw him compete and wanted to bring him to the Olympic Training Center residency program to hone his skills. Yuki Ohno thought his son Apolo would benefit from the full time supervision and training. "My dad was the one who really started pushing for me," said Apolo Anton Ohno. "I was so young at the time I wasn't really too interested because I just wanted to hang out with my friends and stuff. But then, as soon as he shipped me off to Lake Placid, New York for the junior development program, after a couple of months of encouraging, I started to get into it and realized my potential."
Apolo Anton Ohno initially hated Lake Placid, and often skipped training to sneak a pizza. In a strange twist, those extra calories might have triggered a change in his attitude. When a body fat test was administered at the center, Ohno turned out to have the worst score of the entire group. He became determined to work harder, and less than one year before the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the 14-year-old Ohno won the U.S. men's national overall title. But the strain of high expectations was too much and Ohno failed to make the Olympic squad. It was a turning point. "Missing the team in '98 was really, really, really big on my success right now," he said. "I was so young during that season and training and just the psychological [impact of] being in and around all the other skaters during an Olympic year [affected me]. I just don't think I was ready to do it. After I missed the team, I spent about a week in a cabin in Seattle, just by myself. My dad dropped me off. There was no TV, no telephone, I mean, there was just nothing. There's just the ocean, and the sand, the trees, and that's it. And I spent a week of solitude in there, just thinking about that whole year and what I could have done, and if I really wanted to keep pursuing this or go back to school. I think during that week it just came to me and I think that this was something I was meant to do and I was given a gift to skate, and this is something I love, so I just said if I'm going to do this, I'm going to give it 110 percent the whole way."
Ohno had rededicated himself to training and began to see results. Skating on the World Cup circuit in November, 1998, he beat Olympic gold medalist Kim Dong-Sung of South Korea in the 1,000 meters. He continued improving, with 15 World Cup gold medals and U.S. records in the 500 and 1,500 meters. Last season he was the best in the world, with individual titles in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the overall World Cup title. He easily made the 2002 U.S. Olympic team, and is looking forward to competing. "For me, no matter how I did last year, I'm going to look on [the Olympics] as just another opportunity to do my best, and perform my best at every competition, said Apolo Anton Ohno. "I don't really think that I'm 'the guy to beat.' I think that the top seven are the guys to beat. I know the expectations are there, but at the same time, I'm always looking at it like it's a clean slate every year. So hopefully I can just do the same thing I did last year and just perform my best and prove to myself that I can be one of the best in the world."
Ohno has confidence and goals heading into Salt Lake City, where he will compete in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and on the 5,000 meter relay team. "Of course I want medals, you know, I mean, that is just obvious," he said. "But the same time, if I just go to the Games and I perform the best I can, and mentally and physically I'm all there, then I think I have no other worries or doubts in my mind what I'm going to do."