Apolo Ohno counts himself as one of the most dedicated Olympic fans out there. He also happens to be the most decorated U.S. winter Olympic athlete with a whopping eight medals.
Six years removed from competing, the 33-year-old now spends much of his time cheering on Team USA and doing his part to help grow short track speedskating. Friday night will mark the second annual Apolo Ohno Invitational, a competition and entertainment event Ohno founded to showcase the sport he loves so much and help today’s athletes earn a little cash.
The invitational features teams from four countries – Canada, China, France and the United States – competing in the 500- and 1,000-meter, as well as relays. Team USA features eight athletes, including Olympians J.R. Celski, Chris Creveling and Jessica Smith-Kooreman.
The Apolo Ohno Invitational will air on NBCSN on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. MT.
Ohno spoke to TeamUSA.org to share how this year’s invitational has improved upon the inaugural event, his ambitions to increase the prize money and what it will take for an athlete to surpass his record eight Olympic medals.
When we spoke before last year’s event, you weren’t sure yet if this would be an annual event. Is it safe to say last year was a success?
Last year was definitely a success. We decided to make some changes this year to make it both easier on the athletes and for the organizers. Whenever you’re hosting an event like short track in a very large venue, some of the most important aspects are how much can you control the ice conditions, the crowd, etc. So we thought what better way to develop this than to have it where the U.S. athletes train and it’s normally where the world cups are held every year in Salt Lake City, which is at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. That’s where the athletes performed for the 2002 long track Olympics. …
Last year, we had it at the EnergySolutions Arena, which is fantastic – it’s where the Utah Jazz play, it’s where I competed. But the issue with that is for it to feel full you need at least 10,000 people in there. With a sport like short track, we want to really engage people and get them closer to the action. At the Olympic Oval, you could hear the ice, you could hear and feel the wind when they come by; it’s just a much better experience in my opinion.
At the inaugural Apolo Ohno Invitational, the 500-meter world record was set by China’s Fan Kexin in the final. In that same race, Jessica Smith set the American record. What was it like having those records broken at your namesake event?
I think it really is attributed to the staffing and the people who are helping make sure we have competition-quality ice. I can tell you that we believe the ice will actually be faster at the Olympic Oval, so that’s something that the Oval has always taken a lot of pride in is the quality of the ice and the speed. There’s so many records that were broken in Salt Lake City, even though short track is not really about breaking records. We love the speed and the hype and that goes along with record-breaking achievements, but at the same time this is about entertainment and really showcasing the best about what short track has to offer.
Is the prize money of $5,000 for gold, $3,000 for silver and $1,000 for bronze still in place?
Yes. My goal is to double that prize money. I want athletes to show up and win more money than they ever thought would be possible when they come to an event like mine, so this competition is not about me at all. It’s really about the athletes and a celebration of what short track is all about. Obviously I love the sport and I love what it’s given me, and I want to give the opportunities to these guys that I didn’t have. I didn’t have an invitational where I could basically earn X dollars and also get more airtime. That’s a real focal point here, too. Short track is so exciting and so dynamic, and there’s people who don’t get to see that. Whatever we can do to improve that is something I’m interested in.
What type of feedback did you receive from the athletes last year?
We got a lot of feedback and it was all very positive. My goal for next year really is to double the prize money, and a lot more local and national support could make this thing not only an annual, but perhaps a biannual event, where we have one competition in Salt Lake and maybe another in Canada. … US Speedskating is helping tremendously to support this event. We never want this to interfere with the world cup schedule, so we try to have it around the same time these guys are competing. Before these guys go on winter break, they’ll have a chance to win some money and get some coverage.
It’s been one year since your IRONMAN and almost six years since your last speedskating competition. Are we finished watching Apolo the athlete?
Being an athlete, to me, is a lifetime thing; it’s not just about competition. I was blessed to compete in the Kona IRONMAN World Championship last year and it was life changing mentally and physically. It was something I needed in my life; I needed to have some sort of internal mechanism I had to push myself towards. … Will I do more competitions? Absolutely. What are they? I have no idea. I think life is one big training/competition cycle. I will always be an athlete for the rest of my life, no matter what kind of shape I’m in. I treasure my body, I treasure the situations we’ve been able to place ourselves through, especially through short track and beyond.
You recently appeared on “Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris.” How was that experience?
It was great. Neil’s an amazing person, an amazing host. He’s such a hard worker and committed to the show. They asked me, because of my broadcasting expertise, to be a correspondent on the show in which I would do the play-by-play run-through for some of the games we played. It was fun. I hope we could do more next season. Anytime you’re giving away free prizes to people, it’s always fun.
You remain the most decorated U.S. winter Olympian with eight medals. Bonnie Blair and Bode Miller are the closest to you, with six apiece. How difficult will your mark be to match or surpass?
You know what, I never started my career with becoming the greatest, most winningest winter Olympic athlete. Bonnie Blair is a close friend, tremendous amount of respect for what she’s done. She paved the way for so many Americans in the sport of speedskating. And Bode Miller’s a friend as well. I hope my records get broken. That’s what records are for. I know Bode’s not out there competing to try to be one of the most winningest athletes. Bode’s out there because he loves what he does and wants to be the best he can possibly be, and I love that.
I hope people go out there and they shatter records. At the end of the day, the more Americans that win, the louder I cheer. I look forward to going to Rio in 2016, I’m looking forward to going to PyeongChang in 2018, Tokyo in 2020, Beijing in 2022, and I pray and hope that we can bring the Games back to LA in 2024.
Which sport do you think is most likely to produce an athlete who will match your mark?
I think skiing, biathlon or speedskating. Any time you have an event where you can compete in multiple distances and win multiple medals, it’s going to be easier. … Am I a greater athlete because I had a chance at winning potentially four medals in one Olympic Games? I don’t really think so. I think most importantly is the craft and dedication they bring to their sport. To me, being victorious is about much more than just the medals. I was lucky enough to be in a sport that had multiple opportunities, but at the end of the day I don’t think it makes me greater than the next guy who just has one chance to win a medal.
What other projects are you working on?
I have several companies, one I just launched based in Vancouver, B.C., which focuses on brain optimization – cognitive functioning, memory retention, a better version of ourselves. We produce a variety of different supplements. So I’m heavily focused on that arena. I love the entertainment space, that’s why I’m based a lot of the time in Los Angeles. I spend a lot of time traveling around the world. I go to Asia later this week for about a month for business. I love traveling and I always get the most excited when it’s time for the Olympics. I’m committed. I really want to bring the Games back to Los Angeles in 2024.