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Friday, March 15, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fed. Way Speedskater Decides To Take His Time

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

HE HOLDS two national speedskating records and has been invited to train in Lake Placid, N.Y. But Apolo Anton Ohno, 13, has other things on his mind - for now anyway.

FEDERAL WAY - Father and son sat quietly at the dinner table. Neither uttered a word. Laying before them was a small white envelope that could change their lives forever.

The United States Olympic Training Center, one of the finest speedskating facilities in the country, wants Apolo Anton Ohno to leave his Federal Way home and train at the center in Lake Placid, New York.

The invitation was a dream come true, the culmination of countless 6 a.m. workouts at the Puget Sound Hockey Center in Tacoma, 150-mile car rides to weekend meets in British Columbia and thousands of dollars spent to support Ohno's speedskating endeavors.

However, Apolo and his father, Yuki, were paralyzed with indecision. They sat at the table staring at the papers. Staring at each other.

"We just sat there. Not saying anything," Apolo said. "Finally we decided it wasn't the right time. I'm not ready to leave. I've got a lot of things going on here, my friends, school and things like that."

Apolo is the national record-holder for his age group in two distances on both the long track and the short track. He is considered one of the country's top six speedskaters under the age of 17 and has been touted as the next Dan Jansen or the next Eric Heiden by local publications.

But he is also 13 and an eighth-grader at Saghalie Junior High School in Federal Way.

His decision, or rather no-decision, shows he still needs time for normal teenage activities such as hanging out at the mall, his favorite hangout when not on the ice.

Speedskating is still a high priority in his life, but it has not consumed him. Not yet.

He will participate in about 12 to 13 national meets throughout the year. Today he competes in the United States National Short Track Championship in St. Louis. He is the current record-holder in the 500- and 1,000-meter races and is favored to win both events. The meet concludes Sunday.

He will continue this routine probably as long as his father can afford it.

Yuki, a self-employed hair dresser in Seattle, estimates he spent $2,000 last year on equipment alone. The PSHC charges $135 an hour and every time Apolo races, it costs at least $500 in transportation and lodging.

The USOTC would have alleviated those costly bills - athletes train year-round, expense free.

"I don't mind prioritizing expenses, but there is a limit," Yuki said. "We're getting close to that limit. I don't want to say to Apolo that we can't do some things, but we do need help."

If nothing else, the invitation extinguished all the doubts Apolo had in himself. The U.S. training center invites only the best, most promising young speedskaters. Before the 1998 or 2002 Winter Olympics was a dream of his. Now it's a goal.

"For a skater his age, he's doing quite well," said John Monroe, an assistant coach on the U.S. national speedskating team. "One of the things you try to keep in mind when you see a juvenile is that the transition from being very good to world class is often one that very few people can make.

"From what I can see, he will continue to develop . . . but if he wants to make an international impact he will need specialized training and that's a question they might want to wait a little longer before answering."

Before he was a champion on the ice, Apolo was an in-line skating champion and before that, an exceptional breaststroke swimmer. It was through the urging of a friend, Zachariah Charles Foster II, that Apolo began ice skating.

It wasn't a pretty sight at first. "The first time he was on the ice, he was on his butt most of the time," said Vince Foster, Zachariah's father. "I was kind of worried they would break something . . . to see him then, you'd never think he'd be the next Dan Jansen."

That was nearly 2 1/2 years ago.

Since then, Apolo fell in love with the ice. "It's so smooth, so fluid," he said. His body has grown to a beefy 155 pounds and he stands five feet eight inches. His legs are thick and muscular as is his torso, which led friends to nickname him "Chunky."

Apolo has won 30 races and with each victory and record, Yuki feels his son slipping away.

"We can't put this off forever," Yuki said. "If Apolo is serious about this we'll have to make a decision at least by next year."

Yuki said he is torn between conflicting emotions. He has raised his son by himself for the past 13 years. He and Apolo's mother, Jerrie Lee, were divorced shortly after their son was born. Except for a few old photographs, Apolo has never seen his mother.

Yuki is afraid that if he told Apolo to go, he might appear unloving. However, if he told his son to stay, he may be selfish.

For similar reasons, Apolo has kept quiet.

"I think we're both thinking the same things, but we aren't saying it," he said. "I know he wants the best for me, but neither of us are sure what that is. We're going to chill for now and see what happens."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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