Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno talks retirement, Olympic preparation and more.
Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno is the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time, winning eight medals in three Olympic Games. He hasn't competed since 2010 in Vancouver, but he's still the face of American short track speed skating.
During Ohno's Olympic career, he earned two gold medals, two silvers and four bronzes. He has 21 World Championship medals (eight gold, seven silver, six bronze) and is a three-time overall World Cup champion. He's also the Season 4 champion of Dancing With the Stars, for good measure.
Since retiring, Ohno appeared as a commentator for NBC for the 2014 Sochi Games and will once again join the network in Pyeongchang.
Sports Illustrated caught up with Ohno to chat about his career, future plans and what it means to be an Olympian.
(Editor's Note: The following interview was lightly edited and condensed).
Charlotte Carroll: What’s it like being a commentator as opposed to a competitor, and how has that changed your perspective?
Apolo Ohno: It’s obviously significantly different being on the other side of the lens verses being on my side and then calling the live action and the races. But I love it because for one, I have an obvious inside track to the sport. I know all the athletes, I know the coaches, I competed against most of them. I want to transfer my knowledge and understanding of how the sport works into something easier to understand. I want the audience watching to understand short track better and also have inside information about what’s happening during racing, strategy, habits and backstories on some of these incredible athletes.
So it’s a way for me to express my love for the sport while also garnering more interest from fans.
CC: What should we be on the lookout for at these upcoming Olympic Games?
AO: Well of course short track cause it’s my sport! Obviously, of course, short track, but I think the Games in Korea are going to be fun. Koreans are heavily involved in speed skating in general, but I think showcasing some of the beautiful elements of what Korean culture is all about is going to be really interesting for people to see, who are not familiar with Seoul or Korea or Gangnam–which is the ice arena–or Pyeongchang in general.
CC: Going back, you have a history with the South Koreans specifically. Given your competitive side, are you looking forward to going back?
AO: I am looking forward to going back. I’ve been to Korea many times since I’ve retired and the Korean rivalry that I’ve had with the athletes for many years, 15 years actually, was always at its peak. It’s going to be interesting to watch to see how their athletes perform on home ice as an advantage because they’re no longer as dominant as they used to be. So seeing how that comes into play is going to be a really, really interesting matchup, I think.
CC: Which athletes specifically should we be looking out for this year?
AO: There’s a few. So you’ve got the defected Korean athlete who went to compete for Russia, who’s now a Russian citizen but he was a natural Korean citizen. His old name was Hyun-soo Ahn. His new name is Victor Ahn. So he performed very well in Sochi in 2014, won multiple gold medals. But literally you have an athlete from every single country whether it’s Hungary, the Netherlands team, you’ve got the French, you’ve got the Russians, you’ve got the Chinese, the Japanese, the Americans — there’s really a superstar athlete from every team. This will be probably one of the most competitive Olympic Games because anybody from the semifinal to the final can win a possible gold. There’s no clear favorites.
CC: What about Team USA?
AO: Well I think the team in general has a good shot for a relay medal. Individual is going to be challenging. There’s been some changing in the coaching structure of U.S. speed skating over the past couple years so the guys are not as dominant as it used to be, but again it’s the Olympic Games so anything can happen.
CC: Taking you back to your own Olympic experience, what’s going through an athlete’s head 100 days out?
AO: When you look at 100 days out, you’re kind of three months away from being at full, peak physical and mental form. So when you have this realization that you’ve been working for the past four years or eight years of your life toward this one specific moment that can literally change your life, it’s daunting, it’s scary, it’s exciting. It’s a mix of all these incredible emotions.
CC: Where were you in 2002, 100 days out, versus in 2010, 100 days out? Do you feel you gained an appreciation for what you were doing or was that always there?
AO: No, my first Games I was 18, 19 years old and it was my first Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City. So I think gradually, obviously, as I got older as an athlete I was able to appreciate more, I was able to understand more of the complexities, the pressure and also the opportunity. So in my final Games in 2010, I’d gone through the process before, but I was able to appreciate it so much more, right, because I had known this was such a moment in time that somewhat freezes still for the athletes. And you take everything… you place a lot more value on it. Even just from warming up to cooling down before and after races to walking in to the Olympic Village and seeing all the other incredible athletes and the different ethnicities and cultures that kind of come into this mold once every four years, and to the host country and to feel the world's eyes are on you for that 17-day period is really special.
CC: Given everything that’s been happening around the world and especially in the U.S., do you feel there’s an added significance to these Olympic Games?
AO: I think there always is. We live in a world, and in a culture and in a society where variable change and uncertainty is kind of always there. Especially we as Americans look to these types of events, specially the Olympic Games, as being a unifying experience for all of us as Americans. We now cheer and root for one team and that’s why the Games are so special to me because they symbolize so much more than sport. Which I think is really powerful, not only on a unification front, but they’re fun. The Games are about celebration, about having fun. Anyone who’s ever had the chance to go watch any Olympics, whether its winter or summer, know that it’s like a big party celebrating where you’re from, who you’re cheering for, there’s so many different flags represented. The Olympic Games is powerful, it goes and crosses any border, any color, any predisposed belief and system and it really is about those two and three weeks of pure celebration. It’s a lot of fun.
CC: What’s been your favorite part of the Olympics? Is it that added aspect of unity or is it something different?
AO: My favorite part of the Games is…being an athlete there are many different parts…but the one I really love is just the fact the Olympic Games is an accumulation of all these athletes' incredible hard work and they’re competing against the world’s other top 1% at a chance at gold and having that gold medal. But having that experience more importantly is something that is visceral, it is long lasting and it is there for an eternity. Once you make an Olympic team, you’re always an Olympic athlete. So this morning, I was down at Rockefeller just talking to some of my old teammates, it’s a camaraderie, it’s a family, and it’s a respect and honor, very humbling. All these different experiences and emotions wrapped up into one, it’s hard to articulate and put into words. But I look back and I always smile, both the good and the most challenging times.
CC: Is there a specific medal moment or a particular race in those Games that you look back to?
AO: I have many experiences, but I think the one that is probably the most memorable in American’s hearts is probably my first medal when I didn’t win gold, when actually I won silver. But in my eyes, I never lost gold, and I think that our perception and appreciation for that opportunity to go and compete for your country and receive any medal is really spectacular. But ultimately every athlete is there because they want to win gold, they want to have that around their neck and it’s a huge part of our cultural society to want to be winners. But the depth and the texture, I guess, of that experience is different.
CC: How has retirement been since those 2010 Games?
AO: It’s been busy. I had always known that my career would be kind of a launching pad into many different entrepreneurial activities and I’ve never been one to sit back and relax. I’ve always been on the go, very hungry for more and it’s been amazing. I could write a book based on the past seven and a half years.
CC: Are you going to write a book?
AO: Maybe I will, maybe a cookbook. But it’s been amazing and I’m blessed to have incredible wins and devastating losses throughout the past seven and a half years. But I think it’s all a part of this human experience that we are going through, it’s a lot of fun. Obviously with Hershey’s being a partner of Team USA, and now coming here and going to Times Square and being on The Today Show, and doing something where we’re unveiling a new bar called Hershey’s gold. Hershey’s gold bar is fun because I feel honored that I’m partnered with such a quintessential American brand that every American recognizes. That partnership between Hershey’s and myself and Team USA has been amazing.
CC: How’d you go about that considering I know you’re a big proponent of healthy eating?
AO: I think it’s important to recognize I’m a 100% about health, my entire career was really about being at the upper echelon of performance and I think every athlete can attest to having balance in their life and obliviously for me, I love chocolate. I wouldn’t even call it a weakness, it’s fun and it should be enjoyed. Although as much as I am about quantity of life, I’m very much about quality of life. So if I know something is going to enhance my experience or something that I want to eat, I’m not going to shy away from it, when I was an athlete then or even post career.
CC: Is there anything else you want to add?
AO: I love the Olympic Games; this is an opportunity for people to kind of embrace the culture of the Olympics again. The Winter Games is very near and dear to my heart. I feel there’s a little bit more romanticism involved with the winter, because it’s so much smaller and the athletes we get to know them very well.
CC: Do you miss competing now?
AO: I miss it everyday. Everyday. But not enough to compete again.