Shortly after winning a 1,500-meter race last Friday night at a short-track speed skating World Cup event in Saguenay, Que., U.S. sensation Apolo Ohno could be found jogging along the top row of seats at the empty Centre Georges Vezina, ignoring a scoreboard clock that let him know his next race was 10 hours away. "Anyone who wonders if he's lost his hunger should just look at him now," said Derrick Campbell, managing director of the U.S. short-track program. "The proof is right up there."
The proof is also in this year's results. With a first and three seconds last weekend, Ohno leads the overall World Cup standings with 198 points through four of six competitions. He also sits atop the standings at all three individual distances: 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters. At this rate Ohno stands to make even more of a splash at the 2006 Turin Olympics than he did at the Salt Lake City Games, where he won gold and silver medals and became the sport's first matinee idol. "I had to tone down the celebrity thing this year," he says. "The Olympics are a year away, and I've been on a wild ride."
After the 2002 Games, Ohno made the rounds on the talk-show circuit, did photo shoots for GQ and Rolling Stone, was named one of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful and chatted up stars such as Halle Berry, Harrison Ford and Elton John. "I went to an Oscar after-party, and I'm kicking it with the Backstreet Boys, asking them, 'So, um, do you guys play sports?'" he says. "I don't think they even realize they're living in a different world." At that point, so was Ohno. When the skater visited the White House, President Bush told him that the staff had come down with "Ohno-mania" during the Salt Lake City Games. Ohno became a fashion idol for Generation Y, and even female fans started showing up at his appearances sporting imitations of his trademark goatee. At one function, former president Bill Clinton asked his opinion on shoes. "People wanted to know, 'What's your favorite suit brand, Armani or Versace?'" he says. "I was like, 'Guys, I don't know. All I have is a Jordan jumpsuit.' But the attention was cool."
At least most of it was. Ohno still skated with fire, winning the World Cup overall title in 2002--03 and finishing third last season despite skipping an event in South Korea because of death threats made through his website and unaffiliated fan sites (see box).
December 13, 2004
Despite the distractions Ohno is at the top of his game. "He's faster, stronger, smarter than he was in 2002," says Campbell. "He's developing better technique and stamina. He just wants it." Over the summer Ohno started strength and conditioning workouts with John Schaeffer, a former kickboxer who trains boxers, powerlifters and martial artists. Though Ohno says he is now better at avoiding contact, he has built a reputation as a physical and cunning skater who is tough to pass in the sport's tight confines. Last Saturday, Mathieu Turcotte of Canada beat Ohno in the 500-meter final by building a huge lead and holding on. "In order to beat Apolo, I have to race from the front," Turcotte said afterward. "It's too hard to pass him."
Last month Ohno was preparing to work out at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs while his fellow skaters were competing for berths on the national team at an event in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (He had already qualified for the team on the strength of his international results.) With no teammates around to help him move 60 50pound crash mats against the sideboards, Ohno recruited Campbell to help set up the rink for his 100lap morning skates. "Not only that, but he timed how long it took us to get the mats up each day," Campbell said. "The bad news for the rest of the world is that even there he was getting faster."
Apolo Ohno has been a flash point for controversy in Korea since the 1,500-meter Olympic final in Salt Lake City, where he tossed back his hands to avoid a collision with Korea's Kim Dong Sung. Kim won the race but was disqualified for impeding Ohno's progress. Ohno was awarded the gold medal, and many Koreans blamed him for baiting the officials with his hand gesture and saw him as the personification of American impudence. When the Korean soccer team scored a goal against the U.S. during the 2002 World Cup that June, the players celebrated with a speed skating motion that mocked Ohno (above right). And in a poll by the English-language Korea Herald, Korean students listed Ohno as the person they would least like to invite to the World Cup; Osama bin Laden was second. "I mean, who's voting on these things?" Ohno says. "I want to know why people feel I did something wrong to their entire country." Ohno is still unsure about skating at the world team championships in Chunchon, South Korea, in March. "All it takes is one person who's crazy to do something tragic," he says. --B.C.