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Bringing the Heat

A year after Olympics, Ohno is still a star on and off the ice

February 02, 2003|From Associated Press

SEATTLE — One year after Apolo Anton Ohno rocketed to fame at the Salt Lake Olympics, America's favorite wispy-chinned speedskater is still basking in the afterglow.

In the past 11 months, Ohno has shown off his physique in a Rolling Stone pictorial, met actress Halle Berry at an Oscars party, had a booth on "Hollywood Squares" and dined with the Backstreet Boys.

Oh, yes ... that fuzzy soul patch and flowing hair remain a hot ticket.

"I'm still giddy," Ohno said this week during a visit to his native Seattle. "Right after the games, there were big celebrities and all kinds of other people asking for my autograph. It was pretty flattering."

How about surreal?

Women sometimes slip marriage proposals and photos of themselves under Ohno's hotel room door. Squealing girls show up at his public appearances -- and yes, he's still single.

Ohno has seen films featuring actors such as Harrison Ford or Benicio Del Toro and met the stars in person a day or two later.

"It's funny how an athlete gets brought into that world," Ohno said. "I guess I feel the way anybody else would. I look around and say, 'Wow, I just saw that guy in a movie last night.' "

When he's not living like a rock star, Ohno still must train, and he zips around the world to compete. He's still excelling, winning meet titles at World Cup stops in Russia and Italy in December.

"I was a little rusty but once you're in the moment it all comes back," Ohno said. "Other guys were focusing and training hard while I was doing other things. A lot of people weren't expecting me to win."

A crazy life? Sure, but Ohno struck gold in a crazy event.

Short-track speedskating was wildly popular at the Olympics, a fresh sport with an X Games edge that blended the speed and rugged excitement of roller derby with the breathless possibilities of a lucky lottery ticket.

Ohno, still only 20, was cast by marketing minds at Nike, IMG and NBC as a next-generation superstar, and his sport connected with a hip audience that rarely waits long before clicking to the next channel.

From there, Ohno's charisma and good fortune took over.

He won a disputed gold medal in the 1,500 meters, finishing second but being declared the winner by a referee who ruled that a South Korean skater had illegally blocked Ohno.

That was nothing, though, compared with Ohno's other medal, an unforgettable silver in the 1,000 that went down as one of the postcard moments of the Salt Lake Olympics.

Ohno was leading when a crash sent him and four skaters into the boards on the final turn. His left thigh was slashed by a skate, opening a nasty gash that later required six stitches, but Ohno crawled across the line to place second.

After that Ohno was in high demand, one of the select Olympians whose deeds can turn gold medals into golden eggs. He made a whirlwind tour of promotional events and TV shows.

That hectic schedule, though, came with tradeoffs.

Ohno's decision to skip the world championships in Milwaukee caused a stir in the speedskating community because organizers had promised he'd compete. The area is a hotbed for developing long-track skaters.

It was a tough decision, Ohno said.

"I had been training four years straight when I went to the Olympics," he said. "Worlds were not a top priority. It was three weeks after the Olympics and I needed a break. I was exhausted."

Ohno still fights that battle.

Since practice for the World Cup season began in September, his training has taken priority over outside events. Many invitations are rejected, and those accepted are grouped to limit travel.

It means Ohno must work harder in training.

"It's all in the intensity," he said. "You have to be focused on the whole workout if you know you'll be missing a couple more workouts later."

At the practice rink in Colorado Springs, Colo., Ohno spends time with teammates who have known him for years as a skater, nothing more. His celebrity life doesn't exist.

"The topic of conversation every day at training is not the last or next thing he's done," national short-track coach Stephen Gough said. "It's his business, and he keeps it to himself."

Make no mistake, Ohno's World Cup victories two months ago were legitimate. He won the 1,500 at stops in Russia and Italy, two of the four gold medals he's won in seven races this season.

Ohno is still building his resume. He can become the first American to win a World Cup season title, and plans to race at this year's world championships.

Of course, he plans to skate at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

"I'm always moving on and looking toward the next competition," Ohno said. "It's good to reminisce and enjoy the glory but in the back of your head you need to keep pushing and going for the next level."

The upcoming World Cup stop holds special significance for Ohno. He's competing next weekend at the Utah Olympic Oval, returning to the Salt Lake area for his first major event in the U.S. since the Olympics.

Ohno still hears the echoes of 15,000 fans who packed the Delta Center each night to cheer short-track races last February.

"We're not competing at the Delta Center, but I'll probably take some time and walk over to see it," Ohno said. "It was such a spiritual place for me. It will be a part of me forever."

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