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Thursday, February 9, 2006 - Page updated at 01:32 PM

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Olympics

Spotlight beckons again for Ohno

Seattle Times Olympics reporter

For a decade, he has ruled the ice the way a dolphin owns the water. But Apolo Anton Ohno still has those days when he feels trapped beneath it, frozen in time.

One of them came in December, when Ohno, already enshrined as perhaps the single greatest star of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics — a precedent he is widely expected to uphold this month in Turin, Italy — did what he often does when he needs to clear his head: came home.

"Every time I come home, I'm like, 'God, I miss Seattle. I miss everything about it,' " says Ohno, returning from a sushi dinner with friends on Capitol Hill.

"Then I go back to Colorado Springs [where he lives and trains] and just forget. When I'm in Colorado Springs, I feel like I don't age. It's so weird. All I do is train. When I come home, I see all these huge major improvements, condos being built, everything changing. But I feel like the same 16-year-old kid I used to be.

"I see friends who say, 'Hey, I've got a kid.' And I'm like, 'A kid?' And he'll go, 'Well, yeah. I am 25.' "

Life in another dimension

The Ohno zone — Apolo's own mental and physical Olympic training camp — exists in a separate dimension.

"I feel like I go to space almost," he says. "It's really weird. Seriously."

For an elite athlete, suspended animation exacts a price. It also pays dividends.

Which is precisely what Ohno had in mind four years ago, when the lights shone brightest. It was then, after his now-famous Salt Lake Olympic gold and silver medals — both won in the spectacular, controversial fashion typical of his sport — that he and his father, Yuki, made a decision that could prove crucial to Ohno's Olympic sequel.

Apolo Ohno


Height: 5 feet 8.
Weight: 165.

Age: 23. Hometown: Seattle.

2002 Winter Games, Salt Lake City

Silver medal, 1,000 meters.

Gold medal, 1,500 meters.

Since Salt Lake City

Overall champion, 2003-04 World Cup.

Overall champion, 2004-05 World Cup.

World title, 1,000 and 3,000, silver in the overall, at 2005 World Short Track Speedskating Championships.

Did you know?

Co-authored a children's book and wrote an autobiography. Apolo's father, Yuki, gave him his unique first name by combining the Greek words "Ap," meaning "steering away from," and "lo," meaning "look out."

Source: U.S. Olympic Committee

They decided Apolo would stay put at the campus-like Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. They decided he would focus on all the good things and stay away from the bad. It was, in a way, a rerun of a loving-but-firm nudge from Yuki Ohno, a single, Japanese-American parent who sent young Apolo off to speedskating camp at 14, partially to keep him off the streets of Federal Way.

This time, it kept him off Madison Avenue and away from the H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D sign. But the strategy has paid off just as spectacularly: Ohno has largely continued to dominate the short-track speedskating world for four years.

A near-perfect skating machine

In Salt Lake, Ohno at 19 already was displaying maturity beyond his years, on the ice and off. He had the good looks, athletic talent and just enough facial hair to become an Olympic poster boy. But all of those things made it easy to overlook the roots of the charisma that most endears him to fans: In a cynical world of big-time sports, Ohno's Zen-like, throw-it-all-out-there-and-see-what-sticks attitude was a blast of fresh, Rocky Mountain air.

It attracted legions of young fans who loved the guy for what he looked like, who he was, or, in most cases, both. And many of them have quietly followed their leader for four years, tracking his progress daily on Web sites such as Ohnozone.net.

They already know what the rest of the world is about to learn: The Ohno emerging at 23 from the Colorado deep freeze is no longer just a smooth-under-pressure kid. He's an unusually thoughtful young man off the ice — and an even more fearsome athletic specimen on it.

Men's short-track speedskating


Finals
> 500 meters Feb. 25
> 1,000 meters Feb. 18
> 1,500 meters Feb. 12
> 5,000-meter relay Feb. 25

Short-track speedskating is blindingly fast and often chaotic, with skaters racing in a pack — like greyhounds chasing a rabbit — around a tiny, hockey-rink oval. Flying around rubber pylons with the equivalent of razor-sharp, 17-inch knife blades on their feet, skaters are splayed out nearly perpendicular to the ice. When they lose an edge, the wipeouts are spectacular — and sometimes bloody.

From the time he was a young teen, Ohno displayed the rare physical grace and mental acuity to slice through this moving buffalo herd by turning on the jets at precisely the right instant.

He is even better at this today: Ohno's blinding bursts of passing speed are so smooth, they're easy to miss. They're also one of the great bits of controlled fury you'll ever seen in a sports arena. It is as if he flips some internal switch and gets a rocket boost that leaves no smoke or flames — only befuddled competitors.

This, coupled with another four years' international experience as the Guy Everybody Wants to Beat, has made the kid they used to call "Chunky" perhaps the most perfect human machine ever created for short-track speedskating.

"I'm right where I need to be," he says. "Physically, I'm improved. Mentally, I'm more consistent. I like to think I've improved in every way as a skater."

He has done it by treating every year since Salt Lake as The Year — the year that the world spotlight returns, the year that legions of fast young men in tights from Canada, Italy, Japan, Korea and China try stake their own claim to fame by taking him out, literally or figuratively, in front of a television audience in the billions.

Between the two Olympics, Ohno has stepped out of this training deep freeze only to take care of select personal matters: He bought his father a home in Edmonds with some of his endorsement money. He found a girlfriend, Olympic teammate Allison Baver of Pennsylvania. He went through two more coaches, and flirted with, but abandoned, a plan to move to Calgary, Alberta, to train. He did a lot of growing up.

"I've done what I need to do," Ohno says. "I feel good. I've been really blessed, and really lucky. But I still have these doubts in my head. I always do. Like, I could have done this or that. I just need two more months!"

Ohno says he has learned to drop some of his perfectionist tendencies, but he remains a preparation fanatic. After a final, December trip to the Seattle area, including a few peaceful days on the southwest Washington coast, he has spent the last weeks before Turin in Colorado Springs, honing body and mind.

"More than anything, I'm just preparing myself mentally for what's ahead," he says. "I already know it's going to be insane."

Staying within himself

How, exactly, does one do that, prepping the body for on-ice combat and the brain for the television lights, security guards, and even occasional stray death threat by some whacko jilted fan from half a world away?

"Every athlete does it differently," says Ohno, who actually spends quite a lot of time pondering these things. "For me, I've just got to be within myself, and focus on the things I need to do — the things that make me skate well. I don't worry about anyone else.

"You get in that zone where everything just goes into automatic. I was in such a zone at Salt Lake, it almost went by like a blur."

In Turin, he will race roughly every third day, competing in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the team relay. He will be a favorite every time he steps on the ice. That's a tough burden in a sport where the fastest skater often fails to finish — or gets disqualified by a referee.

"Oh man, it sucks!" Ohno says, laughing again at the unpredictability of his sport. "Are you kidding me? I'm on TV for like two minutes, and any one of those things could be the difference between getting a medal — or not. I'm human. Of course I feel that. That's where, hopefully, my experience and my mental toughness will come into play."

Fortunately, Ohno has been able to keep much of his sport's roller-coaster-ride emotion in check with a healthy sense of humor — and an uncommon knack for not letting it all go to his head.

He recalls one night in Salt Lake City, after winning his first medal, when he and a friend slipped out of their hotel to nab some cold cuts and cheese from a local deli. As soon as they walked out the door, Ohno's friend looked at him, wide-eyed, and said, "Run!"

"I look behind me, and there's like 40 people sprinting to catch up with us," Ohno recalls, laughing. "I'm thinking: Oh my gosh. What have I done?"

Something like a phenomenon

What he has done is create a phenomenon — a curious one, in that it has largely simmered, in a cocoon of admiration spun by his most ardent fans, below the surface for four years. To most of America, Ohno is a distant memory about to be stirred: The most that the bulk of the nation's press can think to say of him in Olympic previews is that the guy with the "soul patch" is back.

Ohno accepts that gracefully. His sport has not reached the kind of everyday American acceptance he and others hoped would follow the major television exposure in Salt Lake City.

But it has spurred another generation of young athletes to take up the charge. One of them, J.R. Celski of Federal Way, is an early bet to be the next Apolo Ohno — and he says he made his own switch from inline skates to ice blades specifically because of Ohno's television stardom four years ago.

That's what the sport — and the Olympics — are all about, Ohno believes: Youth. Feeling young, if not in the body, at least at heart.

"I don't ever want to feel old," he says.

When you freeze yourself in time, parts of the world slip by you. But that makes the thawing-out part all the more special.

For Apolo Ohno, the flame is about to be lit, the stage lights are coming up, the ice is dripping away.

As the temperature rises, he forgets about the four years that have taken forever but gone by in a blink. He forgets the sacrifices, the frustrations, the self doubts, the temptations.

He remembers that night at the Delta Center when he wore the gold medal and owned the world. And standing on the edge of what could be his final time in the world spotlight, he's allowing himself to say aloud the four words that have kept him going for four years.

"I want to win."

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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