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Thursday, January 15, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Winter Olympic Profile / Apolo Ohno -- Completing A Family Circle

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

A TRIP TO NAGANO WOULD MEAN A RETURN TO HIS FATHER'S HOMELAND FOR APOLO OHNO, WHO BURST ONTO THE SHORT-TRACK SPEEDSKATING SCENE IN 1996.

The oval is 111 meters around, an unbroken circle of sorts set in a hockey rink.

When Apolo Anton Ohno completes one lap, something he has done thousands of times as a short-track speedskater, the symbolism is as thick as block ice.

Years ago, Ohno's father left his parents in Japan to start a new life in the West. Two decades later, Ohno left his father in Seattle to chase the Olympic dream on the East Coast.

Now the son is on the verge of representing the United States in Nagano, Japan. If he does, his father will go home to watch with his parents.

A family circle will be completed.

Ohno, who is competing at the U.S. short track speedskating Olympic trials this weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., hopes to be one of six skaters to advance to Nagano for next month's Olympic Games. Although 14th after last weekend's races, he has an excellent chance of advancing.

"He had a personal-best time trial, so he is skating at a pretty good level," Coach Pat Wentland said.

"Our top 16 guys, any one could be on the Olympic team."

The Olympics would culminate an odyssey that began two years ago when Ohno and his father had no idea the Winter Games were being held in Japan.

Ohno, at 13 the youngest skater to be accepted to the U.S. Olympic Training Center residency program in Lake Placid, did not exactly jump at the opportunity to train full time.

An eighth-grader at Saghalie Junior High School in Federal Way, he looked forward to whiling away the summer with friends.

But his father, Yuki, who left Japan at 19, did not approve.

"He was overprotective," Apolo said. "But I was getting in too much trouble back home, and it wasn't good."

Yuki said friends discouraged Apolo from continuing in an honors program at school and introduced him to a lifestyle involving smoking, drinking and sex.

"His attitude changed toward me," Yuki said. "I certainly felt that I no longer knew him."

Yuki, who owns a Belltown hair salon, used to take Apolo hiking, biking and driving along the Pacific Northwest's rivers, lakes and streams.

But when Apolo became a teenager, he no longer appreciated the outings with his father. He wanted to hang with friends. Yuki tried to keep him busy with swimming, in-line skating and other physical activities. Anything to keep him away from the Video Generation.

"It was a challenge for me to maintain our principle," Yuki said. "Kids don't go outside. They play video games, eat junk food, stay up late."

So, he decided Apolo needed to leave Seattle the summer after eighth grade.

"At first, no way, I'm not going to go," Apolo said of the move to Lake Placid. "He just convinced me that this will totally change me. If it didn't work, I could always come back."

It didn't take Ohno long to realize his life in Seattle was over. He won last year's national championship at 14 and blossomed into an Olympic hopeful almost overnight. He lives like a college student in a dorm with a roommate. He attends Lake Placid High School and has to balance time for homework and training without parental guidance.

"It has really helped him growing up with the kids here who have a direction and a goal," Wentland said. "They're all in bed by 9 p.m., watch what they eat. It's a huge change in lifestyle."

Still, the separation has taken a toll for a single father whose wife left when Apolo was 1. Once a parent and coach, Yuki is now on the sidelines as his son's muscular legs lead him to races around the world.

Yuki works around Apolo's schedule, attending as many races as possible. Most of the clients understand. They have watched Apolo grow up in the salon, giving their hairdresser advice on child rearing.

Except for a few photographs, Apolo has never seen his mother.

"She doesn't want to be involved with him and that's OK with us," Yuki said. "To him, this is his life. He doesn't know any other."

Some days were more difficult than others for father and son, but nothing any single parent hasn't endured.

"I don't regret it," Yuki said. "I felt it was meant to happen, otherwise I would never have experienced it. Sometimes life just happens and you just have to take it and go from there."

That's true of Yuki Ohno, who came to the United States after graduating from high school in Tokyo. Yuki's father was vice president of a Tokyo state university. Yuki was sent to special schools that would lead to an Ivy League-type education.

"They expected me to perform academically high," he said. "It's the system over there. You've got to go the right channel from junior high and high school. Tutoring, testing and entrance tests, but once you pass the entrance test for college, it doesn't matter who you are, you've got it made."

Yuki characterizes himself as an outlaw who refused to go along. His brother spent 1 1/2 years in college and then left for Paris, where he lives today.

Yuki knows the separation is difficult for his parents, particularly after experiencing it with Apolo.

"I escorted Apolo to Lake Placid," Yuki said. "When I left, you could imagine the uncertainty. I didn't know if it was going to work out or not."

Three months later during a world junior event, Yuki saw his son exhibit a drive he hadn't seen before. The countless 6 a.m. workouts at the Puget Sound Hockey Center in Tacoma, the long car rides to weekend meets in British Columbia and thousands of dollars seemed to be paying dividends.

In one year, Yuki spent about $2,000 on equipment alone. The Tacoma hockey center charged $135 an hour, and every time Apolo raced, it cost about $500 for transportation and lodging.

At the U.S. training center, athletes live and train year-round without paying for the privilege.

Ohno, an in-line skating and swimming champion before he discovered the ice, enjoyed a certain sense of freedom as an unknown skater when he arrived in Lake Placid. But since last year's national championship, the expectations have increased.

His catchy name doesn't help, even if everyone wants to spell it A-p-o-l-l-o, like the Greek god. Apo means "away from" and lo means "look out" in Greek.

When Apolo comes around a tight curve on the ice, opponents get the meaning.

"People already expect me to win these trials and win a medal," Ohno said. "I'd rather just be an underdog with no pressure."

That won't happen now, and he is suffering from the consequences. He failed to reach the finals at the recent junior world championships in St. Louis. His confidence is lagging.

But even if the 5-foot-8, 155-pound skater fails to make the 1998 Olympic team, he has plenty of time to train for Salt Lake City in 2002.

Four years from now, he might be competing at home - his father's adopted land.

Another circle might be completed as he takes countless runs around the oval.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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