His Dancing with the Stars days behind him, an ultrafit Apolo Ohno didn't let fame or a trio of South Koreans get in his way as he closed in on U.S. Olympic history
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 2010 issue
Surely the chase was lost. With half a lap left in the men's 1,500-meter short-track final last Saturday night, Apolo Ohno was helplessly tethered to fourth place. Ahead of him was the South Korean trio of Lee Jung-su, Sung Si-bak and Lee Ho-suk, gliding in single-file precision, a decisive stride in the clear. What followed, even by the frenetic and arbitrary nature of short track, was a stunning mix of sweet serendipity and knock hockey.
With only the tightest of angles, Lee Ho-suk inexplicably tried to pass Sung on the final turn. Instead he lost his edge and slid into Sung, sending both Koreans skidding into a padded restraining wall and clearing the way for Ohno, 27, to skate into second place and into history.
The medal was Ohno's sixth in three Olympics, tying him with long-track skating legend Bonnie Blair for the most medals by a U.S. winter Olympian in any sport. (With two individual races and a relay still to skate starting this weekend, he should soon stand alone.) His teammate J.R. Celski, 19, also jumped two spots, to third, marking the first time two male U.S. short-track skaters had reached the podium in the same Olympic race. "No apologies," Ohno said afterward. "That's short track, man. Crazy stuff happens all the time."
Crazy stuff neatly defines Ohno's intense rivalry with the South Koreans, which began at the Salt Lake Games in 2002 when Kim Dong-sung was disqualified for impeding Ohno's progress on a turn in the 1,500 final. Death threats directed toward Ohno flooded the Internet, and the Korean soccer team even celebrated a goal against the U.S. in the World Cup later that year by pantomiming skating strokes in unison.
Ohno changed all of that during a stop on the short-track circuit in Seoul in 2005. The U.S. team beefed up security and implored him to be guarded and businesslike. Instead he granted interviews, clapped for Korean rivals and high-fived autograph seekers the way political candidates kiss babies. "He won them over by being Apolo," said Jimmy Jang, a former skater and coach for the Korean national team who now serves as Ohno's main coach. "The anger was never really for him. [The disqualification] made Korean people feel politically weaker than Americans. He was in the middle of that." Even Lee Jung-su names Ohno as the skater he most admires. "Apolo has become the light of our sport," Lee said after Saturday's race. "He is better known in Korea than the Korean skaters."
Ohno's popularity has afforded him financial spoils at home, too, giving him a mainstream appeal rarely associated with his obscure sport. He pitches $5,000 Omega watches along with such marquee names as George Clooney, Cindy Crawford, Nicole Kidman and Buzz Aldrin. He was listed among PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful People. His face and skating profile appear on an Alaska Airlines 737. It's one thing to have your own cereal box, quite another to have your own fuselage. Fans from toddlers to grandmothers often arrive at his public appearances sporting bandannas and faux facial hair.
Still, Jang was so concerned in 2007, when Ohno began training to compete on Dancing with the Stars, that he called daily to ask: "Why do you need a funny TV show? Are you a dancer or a skater?"
Listen to him, Ohno thought. Jang, of all people, was the man of substance who made room for style, a practitioner of Korean rigidity who woke his skaters at 5 a.m. for training, but arrived with different colored glasses each day to lighten the mood. Even a close adviser such as Jang overlooked the soul behind Ohno's soul patch. "I thought he would come back softer from dancing," Jang said. "Fame is always like that. Instead, now he is hungrier. What made this happen?"
It started just days after Ohno rhumbaed to victory with Julianne Hough. Ohno was on the phone with his father, Yuki, the Seattle hairdresser who raised him as a single dad since he was a year old and is still his most trusted ally. That day the two reminisced about the mornings when Yuki would drive him in their Volkswagen Beetle across the border to competitions in Vancouver, encouraging Apolo to channel his energy into proving how good he could be rather than how bad he could be. "Those conversations changed my life," says Ohno, who admits to hanging with the wrong crowd as a young teen. "Above all, he told me how great my life could be. He believed it before anyone else, even before me."
Early retirement was a lure. Ohno wants to act. He wants to create a line of nutritional supplements, to expand his business interests. "I want Forbes, man," he says. "I want it all." A run at another Olympics wouldn't be a waltz. "My dad asked if I'd be happy walking away. We both knew I couldn't. I had one more shot at this." While the U.S. medal record is a perk, Ohno revels in the mania of his sport, its unpredictability, its demands and its spoils.
Jang insisted Ohno reinvent himself as a lighter skater who would be better able to dart in and out of traffic and have an extra split second to decide when to try to pass others. He dropped his weight from 159 pounds to 144 and lowered his body fat from 10% to 2%. His racing silhouette, once a garble of incongruous limbs, has become efficient and streamlined. "Other coaches all keep video of Apolo now," Jang says. "His upper body is so quiet."
In October, Ohno invited his personal trainer John Schaeffer, a former kickboxer, to leave his home in Reading, Pa., and live with him in Salt Lake City. The skater who used to gobble up ice cream and pizza has been on the same fit-for-a-parrot diet for 15 weeks; a meal rotation every three hours that includes oatmeal, salmon, brown rice, salad, fruit, seaweed, blue-green algae and, occasionally, pasta.
In the gym he does thousand-pound leg-presses, one leg at a time. He hops stairs sideways for 10 minutes while bent at the waist. His single-leg squats have progressed from 225 pounds each at the start of the 15-week cycle to 400 pounds. He runs 30-minute progressions on the treadmill, at times alternating 30-second bursts at 14 mph with 60-second rests at 8 mph. "Training to the breaking point is like some psychotic elation," Ohno says. "Lactic acid is my friend." By Schaeffer's calculations, Ohno passed the 900-mile mark of treadmill progressions two weeks ago. "He's the blueprint," says Celski, a former inline skater who took up short-track skating after seeing Ohno compete in 2002. "If I want to know what it takes," Celski says, "I watch Apolo, I listen to Apolo. I draw strength from him."
During his victory lap last Saturday, Ohno lifted Celski off the ice, spun him around and pointed to him, passing the torch to the future star. "It's killer to be home sharing this with old friends and new teammates," Ohno said Saturday night. "Soon I'll be onto the next thing, and I'll have no regrets about the sacrifices. I have a cherry on my sundae."
Soon he'll be able to eat it, too.