Gold-medal dad: Yuki Ohno on raising an Olympic sensation
Seattle Times staff reporter
His son may be the world's hottest athlete, but Yuki Ohno is still a dad. His advice to 20-year-old Apolo, newly rich with post-Olympics endorsements and dreaming about an expensive car, is buy a house instead.
"I tell him a brand new car depreciates $10,000 immediately," said Yuki, smiling the way fathers do when they're making eminent sense and can't believe they're being ignored.
Apolo's graciousness in the wake of his two-medal speedskating triumph in Salt Lake City won fans everywhere but South Korea, and his father has emerged as a poster child for single parenthood.
And if Yuki is basking a little in Apolo's success, that's because it's not so far removed from the young man's stormy adolescence when Yuki was making the tough decisions about his son's future alone.
For his part, Apolo is happy to share some of the world's adulation with his greatest fan.
"My father's always been there for me 110 percent," he said, speaking by cellphone as he dashed between gates at the Denver airport. Which is how life has been for both of them since the Olympics.
Yuki recently returned from a whirlwind tour of New York that included watching Apolo receive a Pan Pacific Excellence Award — the last recipient was Tiger Woods — and hearing former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young predict that the young man whose name combines Greek and Japanese would be a bridge between races and an emissary to the future.
Yuki, who repeatedly had to explain to a 12-year-old Apolo why the boy had to spend weekends at speedskating practice instead of Enchanted Village, just about came out of his seat.
"I would never have thought I would be sitting at a function and hearing my son characterized in this manner," said Yuki, who still carries the accent of his native Japan.
Talking recently at a coffeehouse near his Belltown hair salon, Yuki's conversation included generous amounts of parental pride as well as a gifted stylist's stock-in-trade — gossip.
Apolo's dinner at the White House? He sat at the same table as actor Harrison Ford and Ford's new girlfriend Calista Flockhart. Apolo's contract with Nike? Phil Knight, Nike chief executive officer, flew Apolo on his private jet from the company's quarterly meeting in Portland back to Seattle in March. And that People magazine "Most Beautiful People" article which claimed the only reason Apolo has a soul patch is that he can't grow facial hair anywhere else? Not true, insisted his father. They made it up. But the worst affront?
"They said I was 57!" said Yuki, who is in fact an energetic 47.
It's hard not to draw comparisons between father and son. Both have made names for themselves in professions characterized by flamboyance and speed. Both have winning smiles and an abundance of charm. And then there's the killer hair. For Yuki's, think Hugh Grant in "About A Boy."
Apolo's defiant spirit may owe something to his father as well.
Yuki's own father was a university vice president in Tokyo. He was expected to attend university and take up a conventional career, but he instead fled to Seattle and then to London where, in the early '70s, he worked as a stylist for runway models in what was then the fashion capital of the world.
When he returned to Seattle in 1974, the city, he recalls, didn't have a clue. Haircuts took about 10 minutes and were finished with lots of backcombing and hairspray. Yuki, working first for Gene Juarez and then in his own Madison Park shop, Yuki and Wendy's, was one of the first stylists to bring blow drying and hair shaping to women who were all too eager to tear out their rollers and let their hair swing free.
Yuki married, at age 27, but his wife left a year after Apolo was born. (Yuki said that in Apolo's soon-to-be-published book, Apolo does not mention his mother.) Facing the difficult road of single-parenting, Yuki opened a Federal Way salon near his home and began raising Apolo in the same way he was raised, with strict discipline and a clear message about hard work and respect.
Unfortunately, Apolo also went to friends' houses.
"At other kids' houses, it's relaxed, their parents are their servants, kids' fingers snap, there's the food," Yuki said.
Apolo asked the obvious question. "Why do I have to come home?"
Apolo increasingly rebelled against his father's strict regimen, and even ran away from home when Yuki insisted he seize the opportunity of training with the U.S. Olympic team. Apolo didn't want to leave his friends, and Yuki missed his son fiercely. But he says now that parents need to make the hard decisions about their children's lives.
"Kids don't know about life," Yuki said. "What do they know?"
When Apolo failed to qualify for the 1998 Olympic trials and wanted to quit speedskating, Yuki let him make up his own mind. Apolo did return, but he had learned some lessons of his own.
Yuki said his son realized he couldn't succeed by himself, that he had to draw others into his mission of getting to the Olympics — sports psychologist, nutritionist, and masseuse — all focused on the same goal. Yuki became an anchor of the team.
He regularly travels to his son's meets around the world, paying his own way and losing income while he's away from his salon. He carries a blender so he can make fresh fruit and vegetable drinks for Apolo. Some nights, he's on a computer in a hotel room at 2 a.m., getting official times and placements and studying the competition for his son's next race. Other nights, he listens to Apolo's violent coughing, compounded by flu and exercise-induced asthma, and knows it would be futile to suggest that his son take a day off.
Being on the road also, invariably, means giving Apolo's hair a trim.
"I always bring my scissors," Yuki said, explaining how he improvises a chair by turning a plastic garbage box upside down in the bathroom at the competitions.
These past few months have been the payoff for years of sacrifice and hard work. Although the banquets and public receptions have been more glamorous than the usual back hallways of international ice rinks, their relationship is much as it's always been.
"He scolds me. He tells me what to do," said Apolo good-naturedly. But Apolo, in his respectful way, is also moving toward independence.
Asked about Yuki's advice that he invest in a house instead of buying a sports car, the young man sounds downright dad-like.
"We'll have to see about that one," he said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-2922 or firstname.lastname@example.org.