Short track speedskating helped Apolo Ohno grow to become the most decorated U.S. winter Olympian in history, and now Ohno is returning the favor by growing the sport. Ohno partnered with US Speedskating to create the Apolo Ohno Invitational, a unique event intended to excite fans and elevate the sport’s profile. The inaugural competition — featuring the world’s best skaters from the United States, Canada, China and the Netherlands — will take place Friday, Nov. 21, at EnergySolutions Arena, where Ohno won his first two Olympic medals in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Games.
The preliminary rounds will be streamed on TeamUSA.org beginning at 6 p.m. ET, while the finals will be live on NBC Sports Network at 10 p.m. ET. Ohno will host the broadcast.
The eight-time Olympic medalist spoke to TeamUSA.org in advance of the Apolo Ohno Invitational to explain why he believes short track speedskating is the most exciting Olympic sport, discuss the current short track competitors, and compare his recent Ironman competition to his Olympic experience.
How did you come up with the idea for the Apolo Ohno Invitational?
We wanted to put together an entertainment-related show that was based around short track speedskating, but have the opportunity to showcase the personalities of some of the athletes and also just make it fun for the spectators. We wanted to make it a space where we kill a lot of the time that, otherwise, from a spectator perspective, makes it look boring — like the Zamboni and the dead time in between races. We just want it to be more exciting.
The typical format makes sense from an Olympic perspective, but if you want to sell this thing to spectators, you need to condense the format. There’s a lot of dead time where people are wondering what’s going on. I wanted to get rid of that. We have all the elements people love about racing, but none of the time is being wasted.
How exactly are you planning to eliminate that time in between races?
We just keep going. We have some Special Olympics athletes coming out, we have a mascot race. We’re keeping the ball moving at all times. It’s nonstop, fast. We want people to be excited the entire time they’re watching.
Will this become an annual event?
We’re going to see how it goes this week and I would love to see this thing happen annually. That would be my dream. I want it to get bigger and bigger. We have the perfect venue, we have the best athletes in the world and we have the entertainment. We have everything.
That "perfect venue," EnergySolutions Arena, has some significance to you.
It does. That’s where my first Olympic experience was. It’s a fantastic building. It’s where the Jazz play. The goal is to garner as much local support as possible. We want people from Utah to come out, bring their families, cheer people on, get a chance to meet and greet the athletes, and have a much more personal relationship with some of the greatest skaters from all around the world.
You’re also hosting the broadcast on NBC Sports Network. Why do you enjoy broadcasting?
I love sport. I love the Olympic space. Obviously I love short track. My main focal point is always to remain active with the Games. I’ll be in Rio in 2016. I’ll be in PyeongChang in 2018. I love sports. I know sports. I love and I know Olympic sports. I’m a fanatic, so I want to bring my insight and expertise and hopefully showcase it to the American public; hopefully give a different perspective from what other people normally see.
Why do you consider short track speedskating one of the most exciting Olympic sports?
It’s got all the elements that we love about a sport. We have extreme explosiveness, we have the ballistic nature, we have strategy, we have crashes, and obviously we have the speed. It looks impossible when you see it in person. When people see it live, they can’t forget.
What are your thoughts on the current U.S. short track team?
It’s good. Obviously we have a lot of young guys. They did very well at the first world cup in Salt Lake City and last weekend in Montreal. It’s a four-year process. We had a little disappointment at the last Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but I think we can turn that around and we can do some serious work in PyeongChang. It’s going to take some serious focus though.
How can Team USA turn that around and earn more medals in 2018?
First and foremost, I think unification as a team needs to happen, from the coaching perspective to the training. Everybody else in the world is getting better and better every single year. This is no longer a two- or three-country sport. There are six, seven, eight countries that are very, very strong now, and there are multiple top athletes from those countries. The level of competition is through the roof and in order for the United States to remain competitive we have to stay on top of our training, our science and obviously our talent pool.
What do you think of 19-year-old John-Henry Krueger, who has already earned two individual medals this season, one of which is gold?
I think he’s fantastic. Post-Olympic year is one of those years where you really need to focus and concentrate. It’s an opportunity to get fantastic results in a short amount of time. He’s got one of the best coaches in the world. Jae Su Chun was my coach for the 2010 Olympic Games. That man’s a genius. He runs a very strong training program and hopefully we’ll see more and more out of John-Henry.
On the women’s side, Jessica Smith is having success this season with a couple of fourth-place finishes. She is 31. How much of a role does age play in short track?
This is athletics; it’s going to take a toll on the body. But if you look at a sport like Ironman, you have many, many, many athletes out there who are much older. They’ve been doing this sport for a long time. They take a much bigger impact on their bodies than we do, so I do like to see athletes who are older. I think experience comes into play from a strategic standpoint. As long as she can stay healthy and keep her mind there, I think she’ll be fine. She also has Jae Su Chun as her coach.
You competed at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, last month, finishing in 9 hours, 52 minutes, 27 seconds. Do you have plans for another Ironman?
Not in the near future. It was an incredible experience. It was amazing. I never thought that I would ever, ever do something like that.
How did training for an Ironman compare to training for the Olympic Games?
Totally different. I trained for the Olympics for 15 years; this was for six months and there were no Olympic medals on the line, so the pressure was a little different. Still, it was probably one of the most difficult things physically I’ve ever done in my life.
Are there more athletic challenges you want to accomplish in the future?
Of course! There’s many. Life is about accepting new challenges and trying different paths, and learning and experiencing. I don’t know what that next challenge is, but I’m sure it’ll be something interesting.