Red, white and blur: Seattle speedskater hopes to flag down gold
Seattle Times staff columnist
He skates on blades as long as a bayonet and sharp enough to gut a salmon — or slice open a leg in a nasty fall.
When he's in his accustomed position — ahead of the pack in a short-track speedskating race — Ohno is a red, white and blue blur of pure locomotion, arms pumping, torso bent, every molecule in his body straining for the finish line.
Compared to traditional speedskating — the smooth, almost waltz-like long-track version to which Olympic fans are accustomed — short track is a shark feed. As they circle an almost cruelly small oval (it fits comfortably inside a hockey rink), short trackers look like the Blue Angels, wingtip to wingtip, too fast for comfort.
Overt contact is a no-no, but "incidental" bumping and grinding is the norm. One tiny mistake spells disaster — often in spectacular fashion. "We're going around these turns at 35 miles and hour on a one-millimeter blade," Ohno says. "One crack or slip in the ice, and somebody's going down."
More often than not, however, it's somebody else.
Ohno, 19, who grew up in Federal Way and still calls the Seattle-area home, is on the edge of stardom at the first Winter Olympics in his home country during his lifetime. He will be a favorite in all three individual short-track distances at the Salt Lake Ice Arena. And his U.S. team will be a gold-medal favorite in the four-man relay, which Ohno will anchor.
He has been so dominant, in fact, that his failure to win his final heat at the Olympic Trials sparked a scandal, with one faction of his teammates accusing him of sandbagging to allow his close friend, Shani Davis, to win the heat and qualify for the Olympic team.
Ohno later was exonerated, but the point remains: He has won so often that eyebrows raise only when he does not. They will raise again if he does not in Salt Lake City, with the world watching.
That, of course, creates espresso-machine pressure. And Ohno is the first to admit that he's only recently come to a place where he's equipped to handle it.
His young life, in fact, has been shaped by a series of dramatic, unusually stark turning points — waypoints on a map leading to what could be international stardom.
Life in the fast lane
The sharp edge Ohno strode as a youngster was created by peer pressure, with trouble lurking on one side, opportunity whispering on the other.
Yuki Ohno and Apolo's mother, 18 at the time, divorced when Apolo was less than a year old. A court awarded custody to Yuki, then 37. From that point on, Apolo was raised by his single father, who cuts hair at Yuki's Diffusions in Belltown.
To this day, Apolo has never had contact with his mother and says he has no interest in locating her.
"I'm not looking on any (lost-child) hotlines for her," he says. "With her not having been part of my life for almost 20 years, it would be almost weird, almost uncomfortable to be with somebody who has never been there for you."
From age 7, Apolo was a latchkey kid. Yuki, a Japanese university vice president's son who came to the U.S. after high school, says he struggled to keep Apolo constantly busy, with swimming lessons, roller skating lessons, even choir. But he couldn't be around all the time. That left Apolo with plenty of free time on his hands — which he often devoted to hanging with older teenagers.
Discussing this today, Apolo eventually gets around to using the term "gang-bangers" to describe his friends, suggesting that, were it not for his father's none-too-subtle pushing into the world of sports, he could have been lured by the cycle of drugs, sex and crime that befell many of his pals.
Yuki Ohno is more circumspect, acknowledging that Apolo hung out with the wrong crowd, but refers to him more as a "typical teenager" with typical temptations.
"I mostly just hung out with the wrong crowd," Apolo says. "There were times when I would spend a night at a friend's house and I wouldn't come home until three days later. It was the kind of lifestyle that could have led to something a lot more severe."
He was never arrested, but frequently was close enough to see the flashing blue lights. Yuki worried about this constantly, desperately seeking an outlet for his son, whom he believed had special talents.
It turned out to be sports. Apolo, already a talented in-line roller skater, got ice skates from Yuki after short-track debuted in the 1992 Olympics. By the time Apolo was in the eighth grade, he caught the eye of a U.S. speedskating coach. The coach spoke to Yuki. Wheels began to turn. Your kid's got talent, Yuki was told. And the best way to develop it is to ship him off to the Olympic Training Center — in Lake Placid, N.Y. Apolo was only 14 at the time — technically too young to even gain admittance. Some strings could be pulled, he was told. Yuki, afraid of losing control of his son if he continued on his path at home, made the decision for both of them: Go.
Apolo had other ideas. Five minutes after Dad dropped him off at Sea-Tac for the long flight to New York, Apolo phoned a friend, caught a ride and bolted. Yuki didn't find out until days later.
"He was pretty angry when he found out about it," Apolo says. "The second time he shipped me out, I went, for sure."
The first month, he hated it. The sign said "Olympic Training Center," but to Apolo, it was jail.
"Being moved from Seattle to New York was such a big change," he recalls. "Especially Lake Placid. It's such a small town. I had never been in that environment. I felt kind of caged."
Then his coach convinced him, gradually, that he really could become one of the best in the world, and training became fun. After Apolo won his first race against World Cup-level racers, everything clicked.
Within a year, he was breaking records. At 15, Apolo was considered an odds-on favorite to make the Olympic team and perhaps become one of the country's youngest medalists in the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan — the country of his ancestry.
More important: Thanks to a bold step by his father, he'd moved off that precipice of teenage disaster.
Appropriately, Apolo's Greek given name, chosen by his father, implies directional change — in one way or another.
"It means 'to lead away from,' " Apolo says. "I think at times in my life, I've been led away from the good, and led away from the bad. I've made mistakes in my life. It could have gone either way. But definitely now I'm on the path I'm supposed to be on."
Bottoming out, battling back
Shortly thereafter, Ohno found himself straddling another life-changing edge — on top of a big rock.
He literally was sitting on it, gasping in the rain, near an ocean beach in Copalis, after a series of frantic workouts — exercise to exorcise the demons of failure.
Ohno's early leap into stardom had ended with a dull thud in 1998: A favorite going into the Olympic Trials, he had virtually fallen flat on his face, finishing last.
The humiliating finish made him question every second he'd ever spent on the ice — every daily workout, every early wakeup call, every lost weekend. His father's advice. His own choices. All of it.
"It was devastating," Yuki recalls. "I tried my best to diffuse it. Any athlete can recover from a physical injury. But if they're mentally destroyed, they're done."
Apolo's coach suggested he go back into training at the Olympic Center. Yuki's response: "Forget it. I'm taking him home."
But then what? Yuki pondered the possibilities, finally deciding, for lack of a better strategy, to give the kid time alone. He booked a cabin at Iron Springs Resort near Copalis — a longtime family retreat — drove him down south, and left him. Alone. No phones, no TV, no distractions. Just spruce trees, sand and saltwater — for nine days.
It was January. Cold, heavy rain. Every day.
While his older teammates competed — and largely failed — in Nagano, Apolo ran on the beach and local roads, day after day, literally wearing a hole in the bottom of one shoe.
"I was so tired," he says. "I stopped and sat on a rock on the side of the road. I just realized that if I have the desire to keep speedskating, then I'm going to get up and keep running. It was so emotional. I thought, if I want to pursue this dream, this short term-pain is for nothing. It's like, cry now, smile later."
He got up. Kept crying. But kept running. Commitment made.
Later that day, he called Yuki, who, not having heard a word for days, was beside himself. "I'm going back," Apolo said.
Music to Dad's ears.
"I was prepared to hear anything," Yuki acknowledges. "The important thing was, this was his decision. Before, I had to push him. But this was definitely him. He was absolutely committed."
"I just decided this was something I was meant to do," Apolo says of his instant decision. "I was given a gift to skate. I didn't see any reason to throw that away."
Mining for medals
The edge Apolo Ohno stands upon today is the precipice of fame, celebrity — and potential greatness.
In the years after his rainy-day decision at Copalis, he launched a fanatical, eight-times-a-week training regimen that alarmed even his coaches — who at one point suggested to Yuki that his son was overdoing it. Yuki told them to relax. "I said, 'Don't worry. He's always been that way. He's just crazy!' "
Apolo continues to show rare ability, mixing impossible bursts of speed with picture-perfect technique, an unusually keen sense of the ice and brilliant race strategy. By the end of last season, he was the acknowledged worldwide master of his sport.
Which means that he's probably more popular in Shanghai than Seattle. The sport is hugely popular in Asia, where most of its early stars have hailed. But it's not well known in the U.S.
That's all likely to change in Salt Lake City, where 20,000 fans a day — the largest crowds to witness the sport — will get caught up in an event that qualifies as among the most alluring of the Winter Games.
Short track has all the sexy elements to be a hit in the U.S.: With its shoulder-to-shoulder action and often spectacular crashes into sideboards, it has pure X-Games appeal.
And Ohno, with his rock-star looks, Nike contract, Sports Illustrated cover and, perhaps future medal collection, is the perfect spokesdude for speed skating's Generation Next.
He has a solid chance for four medals, but expecting them all to be gold might be a stretch. Anything can go wrong in short track, and often does. But even if he has a bad week, Ohno is likely to emerge with multiple medals of some color — an experience likely to change him, for better or worse, forever.
He insists that he's well prepared for NBC, instant fame and a television audience in the billions. Yuki thinks his son is ready, too — but only because he fell hard enough once to learn how to stand strong.
Still, an air of unpredictability — an edge, even — still emanates from Apolo. The scandal surrounding last month's Olympic Trials put a crimp in the pre-Games party for the Ohnos. They both say it was pettiness cooked up by jealous teammates who didn't make the team. And they insist it's behind them now, with a focus fully on Olympic gold. But it's likely to remain a distraction — at least until his first race.
Somehow, through all of this — perhaps because of it — Apolo and Yuki have managed to form a permanent bond that gets closer with each passing month. They're more like a team now than a father and son, both say — equal partners in an enterprise. A rare single-parent/latchkey kid success story. "Dad — he's my Pops," Apolo says, flashing the smile that's likely to make his sponsors drool in Salt Lake City. "We're closer now than ever. He's strict, but he's always been there to support me. I think I get my work ethic from him. My dad is definitely one of the hardest-working people I've ever met in my life. He's trying to run a business, but at the same time, he'd rather just support me and help me out.
"That is something special." In life or the rink, on the medal stand or off, a clear, sharp edge.