The Vancouver Olympic Games will feature four events in men’s short-track speedskating. Apolo Anton Ohno will race in all of them. Win a medal in just one, and he will have garnered the most of any American male athlete to compete in the Winter Games. Win two medals, and he will be the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time.
Those may sound like good odds for Ohno’s shot at history this month, but short-track speedskating is not a particularly safe bet. Skaters whiz around a 111.12-meter oval track at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour, leading to random wipeouts and collisions that instantly change how a race unfolds. Once skaters cross the finish line, the outcome still hangs in the balance, as a referee can hand out disqualifications afterward for any number of infringements. In this sport, potential for disaster awaits at every hairpin turn.
However, if Ohno feels any anxiety about the upcoming challenge, he’s not showing it. The media darling has been all smiles and motivational quotes, chatting it up with the likes of People and Time, appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and MSNBC, all while relentlessly updating his Twitter feed with upbeat messages. As he recently told the Associated Press, “My love and desire and passion for the sport has actually gotten stronger. I think I enjoy the sport much more now than I ever did.”
Besides an optimistic outlook, another advantage Ohno takes into these Games is their proximity to his hometown of Seattle, Wash. When Ohno was 12 years old and starting out in speedskating, he frequently made the three-hour trip north to Vancouver for short-track races, so returning there should provide him with an emotional lift. “I feel like I’m coming full circle in a sense,” Ohno explained to USA Today.
Now 27, Ohno currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, close to U.S. team headquarters, but his father Yuki continues to reside in the Seattle area. A Shin-Issei and single parent, Yuki has been a vital influence on his son’s athletic development. In the early days, he rented ice time for Apolo and drove the young boy to those first races in Canada. When the opportunity arose for the star-in-the-making to enter a residency program in the Olympic Training Center at Lake Placid, N.Y. — boarding school for jocks, essentially — Yuki pushed to make it happen, although it meant tough life changes for the 14-year-old.
Since those formative days, Ohno has skyrocketed into speedskating’s elite level. Beyond racking up a slew of both national and world championship hardware over the past decade, Ohno has accumulated five Olympic medals: he took a gold in the 1,500 meter and a silver in the 1,000 at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, following that up four years later in Turin, Italy, by claiming another gold in the 500 and a pair of bronzes in the 1,000 and the 5,000-meter relay. Another four years have passed, and the question for 2010 is will he add to this total in Vancouver, and make Olympic history? All that’s left to do is get on the ice and see what happens.