Apolo Anton Ohno celebrates during the gold-medal ceremony for the men's 500-meter in short track speed skating at the Olympic Games Turin 2006 on Feb. 25, 2006 in Turin, Italy.
While growing up in Federal Way, Washington, Apolo Anton Ohno wanted to go into football and boxing. However, his father, Yuki Ohno, had him focus on other sports.
“He didn’t want me to play either of those two sports, so I had so much energy as a kid that he was just looking for any type of after-school activity,” Apolo said. “Watching (short track speedskating) with my dad during the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, I fell in love with the sport. I literally tried it not too long after that.”
Not only did Ohno get started in short track speedskating, he became perhaps the greatest American in the sport, winning eight Olympic medals, making him the most decorated winter Olympian in the U.S. That’s a big reason why he’s being inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame on Nov. 1.
“For me, it’s an amazing thing and to be completely frank, I never even thought about it,” Ohno said. “It wasn’t even something on my radar. And when I got the call from the CEO [of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee], it was like, hey, we’re looking to celebrate. It’s an honor.
“Everything I’ve poured into this sport — my time, my energy, my dedication, my family, all the teammates — I’ve received so much out of that, not in terms of accolades but in terms of thoughts and lessons and ideas and growth as a human being. This is beyond something that I was expecting. It’s great.”
In addition to winning his Olympic medals, Ohno also won eight gold medals at the world championships along with world cup overall titles in 2001, 2003 and 2005.
Just as importantly, he played a major role in growing the popularity of short track. The sport debuted as an Olympic medal sport in 1992 but was not widely known or watched in the U.S. back then. A decade later, it became much more popular at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 in large part due to Ohno.
“He’s our Babe Ruth. He’s our heavy hitter,” U.S. skater Jordan Malone told a reporter during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “He’s the face of our sport, both socially and performance-wise.”
Ohno’s first Olympics were those 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, when he was just 19 years old. With his trademark goatee and flowing brown hair held back underneath a bandana, he created an iconic look and captivated audiences with his cunning performances.
“I think that (short track) is an incredible sport but it had just never gotten the attention and accolade that was deserving,” Ohno said. “It’s just an incredible sport to watch, especially live. On TV is one thing but when you watch it live it will change your mind in terms of what you think in terms of the sport in general.”
Yuki Ohno believes that many fans were drawn to his son not just for his success on the ice.
“I think pretty much his exposure to most of his fans, and followers on social media, and watching the Winter Olympics, they grasp what he is,” Yuki said. “He’s very different than average world-class athletes like in football, tennis and basketball…"
“That’s what he brings in, and I think most of the people understand that he’s so different from the so-called world class athletes in other sports.”
Ohno won a gold and silver medal in the 1,500- and 1,000-meter races in 2002 Winter Games, then a gold (500) and two bronze medals (1,000 and 5,000 relay) at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino. He finished his Olympic career at Vancouver in 2010 with a silver medal in the 1,500 and bronze medals in the 1,000 and 5,000 relay.
“It was a memorable experience training and competing with Apolo,” said short track skater J.R. Celski, another Federal Way native, who won Olympic medals at Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. “We pushed each other every day to be better athletes on and off the ice, and it was fun representing the USA and medaling with him in the relay in Vancouver.”
Asked about his favorite Olympic experience, Ohno said, “They’re all favorites.”
“I would say, overall, we think of these things as very externally motivated and externally validated, but in reality for me the most important part of this was just the fact that I really loved what I did and I tried to be the absolute best at it that I possibly could,” he said. “And every day was another chance and another opportunity to grow as a person and to be better than I was yesterday. And many times I failed. Many, many times I was not better than the day before, the week before, the year before. But I never gave up. And I think that is a very important part as we go through life.”
Indeed. Ohno has not just been a great skater. He has had many other impressive accomplishments such as competing twice on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and winning the show’s mirror ball trophy once with partner Julianne Hough in 2007.
He also competed in the IRONMAN triathlon and has been a speedskating broadcaster for NBC during the past two Winter Games.
Ohno also wrote an autobiography shortly after the 2002 Olympics titled “A Journey” and a second one called “Zero Regrets” in 2010. He’s now writing another book that will be published next year. The book includes ways that people can make their lives better.
“The book is really, really concentrated on the reinvention of lost identity that people go through in their life,” Ohno said. “And trying to figure out and identify with what they want to do, who are they, what are they good at, what skills do they have. And it’s difficult. We live in a difficult time.
“This radically transparent view of the past 10 years when I’ve been outside the sport and all the mistakes I’ve made, some of the home runs that I’ve had, and what I’ve learned from these other individuals around the world. And hopefully I can show people a better path. I’m not saying that my path is for everyone nor would I ever say that I’m the expert in that in any capacity; however, I do think there are a lot of lessons that we learn and everyone has their unique story and situation and challenge and how we approach those challenges is really defining it as a human being.”
Ohno also has done a variety of charity work, including starting the Apolo Anton Ohno Foundation and has worked to end underage drinking. And he is currently helping with a leadership program at the Wharton School in Philadelphia.
In addition to being inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, Ohno, whose dad was born in Japan, was elected into the Robert Chinn Foundation-organized Asian Hall of Fame in 2007.
Ohno is one of 12 individuals and one team being inducted into the hall of fame. Together they have 79 medals, but Ohno will be the one in the room with the most Winter Olympic medals.
“It’s an honor. It’s truly an honor,” Ohno said of getting into the hall of fame. “And it’ s humbling at the same time.”
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.