By Vahe Gregorian St. Louis Post-Dispatch
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Long before Apolo Anton Ohno and his soul patch became a phenomenon at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, well before Ohno captivated an entirely different audience with his “Dancing With The Stars” gig, he was a lumpy 12-year-old from Seattle whose zeal for short track speedskating routinely led him three hours north to Vancouver.
It was there that he learned the basics of the treacherous sport and put it in motion by mimicking the styles of the Canadians.
“I was always known as ‘the kid from the States,”’ he said Tuesday. “I was always welcomed with open arms.”
So perhaps it’s only fitting that Ohno, 27, has looped back full-oval as he stands on the precipice of unprecedented Winter Olympics achievements for a U.S. athlete.
“I’m very comfortable here. I feel like this is my second home,” said Ohno, who will compete in five events, including a relay. “It’s kind of everything you could ask for.”
With five medals, including two golds, Ohno is tied with fabled speedskater Eric Heiden for the most winter medals by a U.S. male athlete and is one from tying Bonnie Blair’s overall U.S. winter record of six.
“Listen,” he said. “Any time anybody makes a reference to Eric Heiden or Bonnie Blair … I feel almost in shock, humbled to be mentioned in the same sentence.”
Yet Ohno also plays down the comparisons. For one thing, he understands that his accomplishments to date — and perhaps even if he breaks the records — perhaps still would pale next to those of Blair, who had five gold medals, and Heiden, who had an unfathomable five golds in the 1980 Lake Placid Games. Ohno was conscious of that the other day as he was chatting with Heiden, now the team physician for U.S. Speedskating.
“How do you talk to a guy who won five (gold medals), who swept all the distances he was in in one Olympic(s), and say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to do something to outbid you?”’ Ohno said.
He stopped short of saying it directly, but the implication was that just winning more overall medals than Heiden hardly would eclipse what he did.
Of course, there’s another reason Ohno has been fending off that angle. Followers of the at-times wacky sport know it well and even have a phrase for it: “That’s short track,” they’ll say with a shrug and an ironic smile. The term is a catch-all for the calamities that can take place at any given second, perhaps best illustrated by Australian Stephen Bradbury’s accidental gold medal in the 1,000 in 2002.
His victory was achieved largely because he was so far behind the pack that he was unscathed when leader Ohno became entangled with a skater behind him, resulting in a four-man heap and a clear path for Bradbury.
With a smile, Ohno recalled his sense of disbelief as he tried to understand what had happened. Though he said there had not been a race as crazy since, such possibilities never are far away.
“Our sport is so unforgiving,” he said, noting one slip can be the difference between first and last. “I think it also teaches you life lessons that are kind of real and instantaneous: Nothing is guaranteed.
“The only thing I can do is prepare my heart and my soul and my body the best I can. Whether I win or lose, it’s out of control to me.”
By extension, the flip side of that is that with so much seemingly out of their control it’s incumbent on short track skaters to control all that they can. That’s why Ohno enters these Games with an internal crawl feed of “No regrets,” one he has been carrying out to get in the best shape of his life, now weighing 20 pounds less than the 165 pounds he carried in 2002.
“He has re-engineered himself,” said Jack Mortell, vice president of U.S. Speedskating. “I’ve never seen him so ready. I don’t see any doubt in his mind. I think he’s going to have his best Games yet. Everything is in place.”
Said Ohno: “I can tell you there’s nobody who’s done the preparation that I’ve done for these Games. There’s nobody. I feel firm and confident in saying that. In all ways.”
Ohno’s staying power has been predicated on his ability to evolve with the sport.
With a laugh, he recalled often taking the ice just before a competition and seeing a panorama of coaches against whom he used to skate.
“Now they’re coaching athletes to beat me,” he said. “It feels good that I’ve been able to stay in a sport that changes, basically … every two years and many athletes get left behind during those cycles of change.”
After 2006, Ohno contemplated retiring and took time off.
As he stood outside himself, he said, his fire was rekindled not by what he’d achieved but by what he’d done to get there.
“My memories were never of me standing on the podium; they were never of me winning a race,” he said. “They were always of me preparing for something” and dealing with “internal conflict” and challenge.
Although Ohno says he is holding his killer instinct in and can’t wait to “let the beast loose” beginning Saturday, he also has a tranquil broader outlook.
“I have five Olympic medals. I’ve accomplished every single thing I want to do in the sport on the Olympic circuit,” he said, adding, “So for me, I have a sense of calm.
“I feel very good about where I’m at.”
On and off the ice.
“If there’s one place outside the U.S. I would love to live,” he said, “it would be Vancouver.”