Apolo Ohno is the most decorated American athlete in Winter Olympics history.
Ohno competed for the United States in short track speed skating in three Winter Games, winning a total of eight Olympic medals [two gold, two silver, four bronze]. At 14, he became the youngest U.S. national champion in history, a title he won a dozen times in his career. In 1999, Ohno became the youngest skater to win a World Cup title. Two years later, he became the first American to win a World Cup overall title, which he won again in 2003 and 2005. Ohno won 21 world championship medals and put short track speed skating on the map. Beginning with his Olympic debut in 2002, he was the face of the sport in America and, with snowboarder Shaun White [Daily Dose, 9/3/15], is one of the biggest names in U.S. Winter Olympic history. “He is our Babe Ruth,” said two-time Olympic medalist Jordan Malone.
Short track speed skating is contested on an oval track with a circumference of just over 111 meters, set on a sheet of ice the size of a hockey rink [60m x 30m]. Races utilize mass starts that include four to six skaters. The sport is governed by the International Skating Union, which has held world championships since 1981. Introduced as an exhibition sport at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, short track speed skating was upgraded to a full Olympic sport in 1992, when four events were held at the Albertville Games. The competition expanded from four events to eight at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Events are the same for men and women and include individual races of 500 m, 1,000 m, and 1,500 m. There are also two four-person relay events; 3,000 m for women and 5,000 m for men.
Before Ohno, short track was considered speed skating’s stepchild sport. It was where skaters went when they couldn’t make it in long track– the Arena League to long track’s NFL. Viewed by many as frozen roller derby, Ohno legitimized the sport. Athletic and charismatic, he became the face of the sport. Prior to his arrival, the United States had won only one medal of any kind in Olympic short track skating—a silver in the 5,000 m relay at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Young Apolo watched that race on television with his father and decided he wanted to give short track speed skating a try. Three years later, he became the U.S. champion.
Apolo Anton Ohno was born in Seattle May 22, 1982, as the only child of an American mother and a father, Yuki, who had immigrated to the United States from Japan at 19. His parents divorced when Apolo was an infant and, but for a few old photos, he has never seen his mother. Yuki Ohno owned a hair salon and often worked long days. As a single parent with no family in the United States, Yuki feared his son would become a latchkey kid, so he got Apolo involved in sports. At six, young Apolo took up swimming as well as roller skating. Living in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way, Ohno’s days included swim practice in the morning, followed by school, then skating practice in the afternoon. At 12, he won the Washington state championship in breastroke, but preferred inline speed skating over swimming. After watching the Lillehammer Games on television, he began competing in speed skating events in the Pacific Northwest and Canada.
Ohno enjoyed immediate success, winning several age-group competitions. At 13, he was touted as the next Dan Jansen [Daily Dose, 6/17/16] or Eric Heiden [Daily Dose, 2/15/16]. Speed skating was an expensive endeavor. Ice time at Puget Sound Hockey Center in Tacoma cost $ 135 an hour and thousands more were spent on equipment and travel. In 1996, Yuki Ohno got his son admitted to the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, which alleviated costs while providing full-time training. At 13, Ohno became the youngest skater ever admitted to the center. After taking gold in the 1,500 m and silver in the 300 m to claim the overall title at the 1997 U.S. Senior Championships, he was relocated—at 14–to the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center to train with senior-level skaters. After finishing 19th at the 1997 World Championships and failing to make the 1998 U.S. Olympic Team, Ohno returned to Lake Placid to train with coach Pat Wentland.
At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Ohno emerged as a star. After a disqualification in the 500, he led the 1,000 meters late in the race. Coming around the final turn, Ohno and three other skaters collided and fell, leaving Steven Bradbury from Australia—who had been last—to win. Ohno quickly got up and finished second. In the 1,500, Ohno attempted to pass Kim Dong-Sung on the final lap, only to have the South Korean drift to the inside, obstructing Ohno. Kim finished ahead of Ohno but was disqualified for blocking, giving the Ohno the first individual gold medal in U.S. short track speed skating history. The skates Ohno wore in Salt Lake City are now on display at the Smithsonian Institute.
After capturing World Cup titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005, Ohno won gold in the 1,000 and 3,000 at the 2005 World Championships in Beijing. At the 2006 Turin Olympics, he stumbled during a semifinal heat in the 1,500 and was unable to defend the title he had won in Salt Lake City in 2002. Ohno recovered to take bronze in the 1,000 m before claiming gold in the 500. The Americans earned bronze in the 5,000 relay, giving Ohno three medals from the Turin Games. Following the Olympics, he took a year off from competition, then returned to win his ninth national title in December 2007. At the World Championships one year later, Ohno placed first in the 500, second in the 1,000 and third in the 1,500 to win the first and only overall World Championship title of his career.
In preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Ohno trained three times a day and adhered to a strict diet, allowing him to double his strength while losing weight. At 5’8”, 145 pounds, he was 20 pounds lighter than he had been in 2002, and his body fat was less than three percent. He came into the Vancouver Games having won the 500, 1,000, 1,500, and overall title at the Olympic Trials, and felt good about the American squad. “This is the strongest team we’ve ever had,” Ohno said. “I feel really good about how we will do.” He placed second in the 1,500 final, with teammate J.R. Celski taking third. With six career medals, Ohno tied Bonnie Blair [Daily Dose, 7/15/15] for most medals won by a U.S. Winter Olympian. One week later, he would win bronze in the 1,000 m to surpass Blair. Ohno earned the eighth and final Olympic medal of his illustrious career—a bronze—in the 5,000 meter relay. Mr. Ohno retired from competitive skating after the Vancouver Olympics having earned eight of the ten medals U.S. men have won in the history of the Winter Games.
An extraordinary athlete, Apolo Ohno took on other challenges following his skating career. In 2011, he completed the New York City Marathon in three hours, twenty-five minutes. In October 2014, he called upon his swimming background and completed the Ironman Triathlon [Daily Dose, 12/23/15] in less than ten hours while placing 320th in a field of 2,000. Most impressively—after swimming 2.4 miles in the rough ocean, then biking 112 miles through the hot lava fields of Kona—Ohno covered the marathon in 3:36.41. In 2013, he hosted a new version of Minute to Win It on the Game Show Network, six years after he won the fourth season of Dancing With The Stars. Mr. Ohno covered the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi for NBC Sports and is involved with Ronald McDonald House and Special Olympics.
On this date in 2002, Apolo Anton Ohno captured an Olympic silver medal in the men’s 1000 meter short track event at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.