Here he comes, breaking out of a slouch, cutting short a yawn,
slicing step by icy step into his moment. Here he comes, the
U.S. athlete most likely to leave Salt Lake City with a fistful
of medals, skating too far back in the pack, his calm sending
his coaches into profane exasperation: Move your ass to the
front! Get up there! Can he make his move, find the gaps, slip
the traps? Will he fall as he did once in a four-lap time trial,
sliding on both elbows and one knee into a curve, only to pop
back up in traffic and into the race? Will he go spinning into
the wall? Here he comes, long hair strapped under his helmet,
skates sprinkled with glitter. Are you ready to care?
Here comes 19-year-old Apolo Ohno, the name summing up divine
talent and ungodly trouble. Here comes the next U.S. Olympic
hero--so long as he can avoid a repeat of his 1998 meltdown, so
long as he can handle the Nike-sparked, IMG-fueled, NBC-oiled
hype machine. Here he comes, leaning into a turn at 35 mph,
dragging behind him a sport that few Americans know and fewer
care about. He's no one's idea of a hibernal darling. The Winter
Games have usually celebrated middle-class pastimes, Norman
Rockwell-style. The athletes who have taken the grand prizes
(endorsements, gold medals, a lifetime's hold on our affection)
most often have been mainstreamers from the moneyed sports of
figure skating, hockey and skiing; even long-track speed skating
gods such as Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen gave off
that sweet Midwestern scent of white bread rising.
Now comes Ohno, a diamond stud in his ear, a whiff of scandal in
his wake. He is a serious contender for four Winter Olympic gold
medals, in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the 5,000-meter
relay. Never mind that his sport, short-track speed skating, has
been in the Games only since 1992. It's an exhilarating
spectacle, the Olympic equivalent of Roller Derby. No U.S. man
has been better at negotiating the anarchy of the 111-meter oval
than Ohno, who won two gold medals and a silver at the 2001 World
Championships and finished first on last season's World Cup
circuit. "When focused, he's pretty much unbeatable," says the
Americans' short-track coach, Sue Ellis.
Focus, however, is Apolo's Achilles' heel. He tends to get
distracted, but then, growing up, he had plenty of distractions.
His father, Yuki, a Japanese hairdresser, raised Apolo alone in
Seattle after Yuki's marriage to Apolo's mother, an American
named Jerrie Lee, soured, and she dropped out of their lives.
Apolo, a latchkey kid, fell in with a crowd of petty criminals
and juvenile delinquents. He always burned, he says, with "this
mad energy." He dropped out of an honors program in junior high
school because his friends thought it was uncool. A former coach
says Apolo once claimed that he'd faced gunfire, but Ohno denies
that and now prefers to cloak his past in vagueness. He often
ends sentences with the prevailing teen evasion, "Whatever." He
shrugs when asked about the mother who left him when he was a
year old; he knows little about her and professes to have no
interest in learning more about her. His father will have it no
other way. "There's no story about her," Yuki says. "No story.
It's insignificant to what he is now. We've got to keep it that
February 4, 2002
Meanwhile, none of Apolo's official bios, and none of the stories
written about him since 1997--when at 14 he became the youngest
U.S. short-track champion--mention that he has a half brother.
When the subject is broached, Apolo pauses and then describes the
brother as "about 10 years older" and no factor in his
upbringing. Asked if the brother lives in Seattle, Apolo says, "I
don't know. You're not going to get hold of him." Asked if he
speaks with him, Apolo says, "Not at this point."
He says this while sitting in a cafeteria at the Olympic Training
Center in Colorado Springs. Ohno is but weeks from his dominating
and controversial performance at the short-track trials in Salt
Lake City in December and only months from taking the biggest
sports stage the world offers. He's in the elite, and that alone
is testament to his father's will and fear. "It was a mystery,"
Yuki says of fatherhood during his first years with Apolo. "I was
incompetent. I didn't think I could pull this thing off."
Then again, it wasn't Yuki's first attempt at defying convention.
In the early 1970s the 18-year-old Yuki, the son of a university
vice president, rebelled against the Tokyo academic life in which
he was raised, defying his parents and moving to the U.S. After
failing as an accounting student, he drifted into hairdressing
and studied at a Vidal Sassoon salon in London. He traveled all
over Europe and to New York City to work the hair shows. In 1980
he opened his Seattle shop--Yuki's Diffusions--married Lee and
figured his peripatetic life might slow.
He had no idea. He and Lee split in 1983--Yuki will not say
why--and they agreed, Yuki says, that little Apolo would be better
off with a father who worked 12-hour days and had no relatives to
help him. His fashionista pals drifted off. "Everything changed,"
Yuki says. "I had to change the diaper. I was completely out of
the circle. Those people don't talk about kids."
Sometimes Apolo would be in day care; sometimes he'd be sitting
in the back of the shop watching his father mousse and clip.
Customers still remember the little boy in his Halloween costume
as night came down, waiting impatiently for his dad to close so
they could trick or treat. Yuki tried everything to keep Apolo
occupied--choir, swimming, roller skating--but the kid was a
handful. He'd climb over a fence at day care, eat rocks and dirt.
At eight he began taking care of himself after school, coming and
going at will. His junior high school was rife with fighting;
boys, proud of their time in juvy, plotted to blow up the
toilets. Apolo spent afternoons by himself or, worse, with guys
nearing their 20s while he hadn't yet reached his teens.
By the time he was 13, Apolo would be gone from home on weekends,
flopping at the houses of friends, staying up all night. Sports
weren't helping. He had graduated from in-line skates to ice and
the short-track scramble he'd discovered watching the 1994
Olympics on TV. He quickly won three age-group titles. Yuki drove
him all over--into Canada, out to Chicago, silently hoping success
would be enough to keep Apolo out of trouble. It wasn't. He and
Yuki often fought, Yuki threatening to send his son to military
school. Yuki could sense those delinquents sucking Apolo into a
wasted life. "And he didn't know how bad those guys really were,"
Apolo says. "One guy was in the newspaper every week for the
houses and cars he robbed. People got shot, people got stabbed--or
went to jail."
In 1995 Patrick Wentland, then a development coach for speed
skaters at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, saw Apolo
racing in the junior national team trials in Saratoga Springs.
Wentland was impressed by the boy's precocious strength, and
Yuki, seeing the coach's interest, sprang. He asked Wentland to
admit his son, then almost 14, to the center--even though the
minimum age was 15, even though Apolo would have to move 2,800
miles from home.
No one that young had ever been admitted, but Wentland, in talks
with the USOC, campaigned hard for Apolo. He wouldn't have been
so persistent had he known that the kid had no interest in
coming. In June 1996, weeks after Apolo's 14th birthday, Yuki
dropped him at the entrance to the Seattle airport. Apolo didn't
make it past the first pay phone. "I made a call, and I was out,"
he says. "I had it all planned. Dad told me, 'I know what's best
for you, you need to listen.' He comes from that Asian
background; he's strict. But I'm 14, I don't want to do anything
anybody says. So I had a friend pick me up. I was gone."
After a week's standoff--with Apolo at a friend's house, Yuki
fuming at home where he'd received phone calls in which Apolo
refused to say where he was, and Wentland wondering what had
happened to the kid he'd gambled on--Yuki played his final card.
He called his ex-wife's sister in Portland and implored her to
come and talk sense into his son. Impressed by such obvious
desperation, Apolo returned home. Getting him to Wentland was
another matter. "I practically have to tie him with rope into the
airplane seat," says Yuki, who went along on the flight this
time. After they arrived in Lake Placid, Yuki startled Wentland
by assuring him that Apolo would pull some stunt to get himself
kicked out of the center. Yuki's final words to Wentland: "Good
Apolo's first month at the center was a washout. He had little
interest in training, and whenever Wentland led a five-mile run
to the lake, Apolo would drop out of the pack with a buddy and
head for Pizza Hut. "I hated it there," he says. "I didn't talk
to anybody. I didn't want anybody to help me. Then I thought, I'm
having a good time skating, my dad's not here bossing me around,
I'm young and I can do whatever I want."
It didn't hurt that in August Wentland handed out the results of
the group's body-fat test. Apolo--or Chunky, as he had been
nicknamed--came in last. "That got him," says Wentland, who would
go on to become U.S. national coach in 1999. "He came up to me
and said, 'I don't want to be the fattest, I don't want to be the
slowest, I want to be the best.' He totally changed. Every
workout from then on, he had to win. I'd never seen that kind of
turnaround so fast. Even now, at this level, if he decides one
day that he's not feeling right, he won't skate well. But if he
knows that he can win, I don't care if all the other skaters are
having the best day of their lives, he'll beat them."
Such determination, combined with Apolo's gift for decoding a
race's rapidly shifting patterns, seemed a recipe for instant
greatness. In 1997 Apolo, not yet 15, won the U.S. championship,
though in this sport the typical athlete peaks at 24. He seemed
fated to make noise at the '98 Winter Games in Nagano. At home in
Seattle, though, he still hung out with his old crowd of
troublemakers and battled with Yuki, and the prospect of carrying
the U.S. short-track team proved a crushing burden. Undertrained,
overweight and exhausted, Apolo finished 16th in a field of 16 in
the U.S. Olympic trials and left Lake Placid shattered. "I wasn't
sure I'd ever see him again," Wentland says.
Yuki and Apolo flew back to Seattle together, but instead of
going home they drove 2 1/2 hours west to a cabin Yuki rented on
the Washington coast in an isolated spot called Iron Springs.
"You think it over," Yuki said. "If speed skating is not what you
want to do, I want to know." Then Yuki drove away, leaving Apolo
for eight days with no television, no phone, no car--only some
provisions, the gray ocean, constant rain and his own angry,
So Apolo began to run--barefoot--on the rocky beach or along a
narrow highway nearby. A massive blister grew on the bottom of
one foot, but he pushed on. One day, as the rain pounded him
mercilessly, he stopped in his tracks on the beach. What am I
doing? he asked himself. He realized that if he didn't want to
end up like his friends in Seattle, he had to get more serious
about his life and his skating career. With the rain still
falling, he took a deep breath and began to run again.
The following year Ohno won the U.S. title. Since then he has
only gotten better, becoming American speed skating's big hope.
Although Heiden, Blair and Jansen drew lots of attention during
their Olympic reigns, "we [the sport] never had the chance to
cash in," says U.S. Speedskating president Fred Benjamin. "Heiden
immediately went to medical school [after winning five Olympic
golds in 1980]. Bonnie does a few things, but she's not going out
there [enough]. Dan's doing his thing, mostly for his sister's
charity. We need someone to be seen."
Indeed, competition from hockey and figure skating has only
eroded the gains made by the big three of American speed
skating. "It's a dying sport," Wentland says. "If Apolo scores
big in Salt Lake and comes across as the personality he is, we
finally have a shot to get noticed."
Which may well be a mixed blessing. At the U.S. trials in
December, Ohno scored big and drew plenty of notice--but for all
the wrong reasons. About a week after totaling an SUV with
teammate and best friend Shani Davis beside him, Ohno
steamrolled the field with a performance so crushing that
eyebrows rose only when he lost. After he breezed through the
first seven races, winning the 500- and 1,500-meter finals, Ohno
finished third in the competition's last race, the 1,000--a loss
that, to competitors Tommy O'Hare and Ron Biondo, all too
conveniently allowed Davis to win and claim the sixth and final
spot on the Olympic team. O'Hare charged that Ohno and Rusty
Smith had conspired to fix the race, and in the walk-up to the
Games the sport found itself degenerating into a nasty stew of
intrateam tension, Smith's defamation suit against O'Hare and an
arbitration hearing that could well have ended with Ohno's being
kicked off the team.
On Jan. 24, though, an arbitrator ruled that there was no
evidence to support the charge. O'Hare withdrew his complaint,
and Smith dropped his suit. Ohno insisted that he had backed off
in the race only because he didn't want to risk injury, but
reports that three skaters had testified to overhearing a fix
being discussed and that the race's referee, Jim Chapin, had
testified that he saw irregularities in the 1,000 were enough to
create a cloud sure to follow Ohno to Salt Lake City. "I'm very
pleased with the outcome," Ohno says. "I knew the truth would
come out. I was concerned because I was losing training time and
losing focus, but I'm definitely getting back on track."
Here, then, comes Apolo Ohno to a sport and a network in need.
Here's a beacon of cool for the X Games crowd NBC is so desperate
to attract, a winter darling unlike any other. The last time
someone this edgy blew out of the Northwest into the Winter
Games, she had her main rival kneecapped. If at a time of
flag-waving earnestness, Ohno doesn't fit the old mold, that's
just too bad.
"Skating as well as I am--that's special," Apolo says. "To be able
to come out of that mess as I did is special. To be able to
improve my relations with my dad is special. I'm happy with the
way my life's going, the way I'm growing up as a person. Skating
has changed me. I've had a lot of chances, and this is my time to
Yuki's, too. Even though the bond between father and son frayed,
it never broke. Through it all--every fight, every long
separation--Apolo made sure never to go too far. Through it all,
he continued to let Yuki cut his hair. Dad packs his scissors for
"I always end up in the bathroom, doing his hair," Yuki says.
"Lately he wants to grow it longer, but I still cut it off."
A typical short-track speed skater doesn't peak until age 24,
but Ohno, the wunderkind of his sport, won his first U.S. title
After Apolo's trials meltdown in '98, Yuki took his shattered son
to a cabin to be alone for eight days.