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Ohno's ups and downs

Apolo Ohno has gone from rebellious teen to dedicated skater and from winning a gold to scrambling for silver.

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002


SALT LAKE CITY -- Watch him slide around the rink. His journey appears so smooth, so easy, you can understand why he infuriates the other competitors.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Watch him slide around the rink. His journey appears so smooth, so easy, you can understand why he infuriates the other competitors.

Even in the bumper-car world of short-track speed skating, there seem to be no obstacles in his way. The ice ahead of him looked silver and slick, like the pathway to a throne.

Watch him float through the building. There is a regal bearing there, one that echoes his mythological name. The hair flows behind his head. The patch of hair is there on his chin, reminding you of his limited years. There is glitter on his skates, like the shoe of a prince.

Watch Apolo Ohno move through the raucous crowd, and you become convinced this is his place, and his moment and his people. Ohno, 19, seems destined to become the story of the second week of the Olympics. He could win four medals. He could end up as a familiar name in the unfamiliar sport of short-track speed skating.

For now, however, there is only the ice in front of him. And herein lies the lesson of Apolo Ohno.

It isn't the destination that matters.

It's what you have to endure along the journey.

The first mission of Apolo took place Saturday night and, typically, it was a turbulent trip. It started innocently enough. And it went through some rough times. And it finished nicely enough. And, really, isn't that whatOhno's story is all about?

Ohno won the silver in the 1,000 meters, scrambling from a crash near the finish and flopping across the line, leaving everyone behind him to debate if he is victim or villain.

Ohno seemed to be skating well when China's Jiajun Li skated in close from the right. Ohno's right arm shot out, knocking Li off stride. Li fell forward then into the back of Ohno's legs.

The two stumbled, and Korea's Ahn Hyun-soo, who had skated into the infield, plowed into them about 15 yards from the finish. The crash was so significant that Australia's Steven Bradbury, skating far behind in fifth place, won the gold by staying upright.

Li was disqualified, and Ohno has a gash in his left leg that required six stitches. He said he should be fine by Wednesday and will be able to continue in his Olympic competition.

"I'm just lucky it wasn't worse," said Ohno, who was walking on crutches. "It was one of the best performances of my life. Unfortunately, I was taken out in the last corner." Ohno had made it look so easy in his heats. He seemed ready to claim this crazy sport in the name of Loco Ohno.

But the final was a metaphor for his career. Nothing has been smooth in Ohno's path. And it is somewhat amazing he made it to the finish line at all.

Go back five years, just five, and you would have found a different Ohno. He was every 14-year-old slacker you've ever warned your kid about. He was uninspired, rebellious, infuriating. He ran with a bad crowd. He argued with his father. He did what he wanted, and not a lot qualified.

If you want to talk of journeys, it was the path from that kid to this one that is most impressive.

Now, he is skating toward triumph.

Then, he was skating toward trouble.

Consider where Ohno began, and it seems an impossible passage to where he is now.

Is he really going to be a success? How absurd it would have been to suggest that a few years ago. Not when Ohno was running with thieves and druggies. Not when he was disappearing for days at a time. Not when he dropped out of a junior high honors program.

Does this sport belong to Ohno? What a ridiculous notion that would have been. When he was 14, Ohno's father, a Seattle hairdresser named Yuki, drove him to the airport to send him to a camp in Lake Placid.

Ohno went to the phone and had a friend pick him up. His father didn't find out he hadn't made the trip for three days.

Does Ohno have the stuff of legend? How they would have laughed at the notion at the Olympic Complex. Eventually, Ohno did make it to the speed-skating camp. But as his group would take a 5-mile run each morning, Ohno would duck into a Pizza Hut along the way. When the group came back, Ohno would rejoin them. His nickname? Chunky.

Is the medal stand really his place? What a preposterous idea that seemed in 1998. Heavy and unfocused, Ohno missed the Olympics. So his father took him to a secluded cabin, without a telephone or a television, and left him. Deal with yourself, the message seemed to be.

Ohno began to run along the sand, lost in his thoughts. He tells the story of how a blister began to form on his foot, how he stopped and sat on a rock in the cold, driving rain and picked at it.

On that rock, in that rain, Ohno's life changed. There, then, he decided to dedicate himself beyond what he had done before. He rose and began to run again. Toward something, for a change.

Later, he called his father. He asked for another ride to the airport.

In that phone call, the wounds between a father and a son were healed.

Yuki Ohno's son had been a struggle for him from the time his wife (she was an 18-year-old American, he a 37-year old Japanese immigrant) left him. Apolo often was on his own.

Ohno hasn't talk to his mother for two decades. If she's reading, he isn't wild about the idea now.

"After 19 years, it would be strange," he says. "I don't have any (lost child) hotlines out for her."

It's a shame the mother had to miss this. She missed seeing how her son endured the minefield of his teenage years. She missed his success. She missed his smile.

Oh, no, everything isn't wonderful in the life of Ohno. There is an edge behind his skates.

Take the trials, when Ohno was accused of match-fixing in order to allow his best friend, Shani Davis, onto the U.S. team. An arbitrator ruled in Ohno's favor, but still, such an accusation is difficult to skate away from. Even now, Ohno is questioned about it as if he were Skateless Joe Jackson.

He is America's delinquent, a reminder of how a kid can overcome himself and find the right track.

On the ice, no one talks about anything but his ability. And his possibilities. Despite the 1,000, he still could win and win again and again. He could win gold. He could make millions.

That's the end result, however. Don't worry about the end, Ohno would tell you.

Just hang on for the ride and try to stay upright in the end.

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