Apolo Ohno, the USA’s most decorated winter Olympian of all time, is finding life after sport so thrilling, so complex, so challenging, so rewarding, that he is writing a book about it. Here, he looks back on his startling short track speed skating career and outlines how he is striving to make his time off the ice just as successful – both for him and for others.
The USA’s Apolo Ohno has packed an awful lot into his 37 years. Not content with simply turning his precocious talent into eight Olympic medals, the former short track speed skater has become a successful entrepreneur, a mainstream TV star – winning a season on primetime TV show Dancing with the Stars and hosting a network game show – and a global brand.
But despite the packed nature of his schedule since he hung up his skates following the Olympic Games Vancouver 2010, Ohno openly admits that he has not found the transition from professional athlete to civilian particularly easy.
“It was so challenging that I asked my peers if they had similar internal psychological conversations to the ones that I was having,” Ohno said. “It turns out that many of the 36 Olympic athletes, many of them gold medallists, with whom I have spoken feel a profound sense of longing back towards their sport. They haven’t figured it out.”
Given his high-octane nature – Ohno’s father first sent him to an ice rink to funnel his boundless energy – it is perhaps no surprise that the two-time Olympic champion decided to do something useful with what he had discovered.
“In the past eight months I have been writing extensively on this topic, on reinvention, on loss of identity, humility, empathy – going to the top of the mountain and then back to the bottom,” Ohno explained. “I am fascinated as to why as human beings we have a difficulty in choosing a new path.
“It’s a book for my younger self, for a younger athlete, really for anyone who is struggling or will struggle at some point in their life with the questions: What purpose am I here for? What path am I supposed to take? How do I reinvent myself?
“It’s for those who lack confidence. Some of us are born with incredible alpha confidence and some of us are not. How do you succeed in life if you are not born with it?”
For Ohno, life changed the moment he was exposed to the sheer scale of the Olympic Games. The Washington state native was hailed as a prodigal talent from his early teens – Ohno recalls realising aged 15 that he “could skate better than most people” – and he went into the Salt Lake City 2002 Games having won multiple World Championship and overall World Cup titles. But nothing had prepared him for what was to come.
“I was 19 years old, a deer in the headlights. I didn’t have any understanding of what the experience was going to be like. I tried to prepare for it mentally and visualise it, but I couldn’t,” Ohno admitted.
“It was the first time that I felt like I was competing for more than myself. I was like, ‘Wow, this is bigger than me’. My personality and activity on and off the field of play was reflecting not only me as a person but also the country. I found that really profound.”
Profound and clearly inspiring, with the USA man leaving the Games with a 1500m gold and a 1000m silver medal. Although those simple words do not tell even half the story.
First, Ohno lined up for the 1000m final as one of the favourites and for three-quarters of the race things were looking good, very good. But just as Ohno emerged round the top of the final bend, poised to grapple for the gold, he tangled with his three principal rivals and all four of them slammed on to the ice. From there they could do little but watch Steven Bradbury, Australia’s back-marker who had spent much of the race half a lap off the pace, sweep through and claim one of the most extraordinary gold medals in Olympic history.
Ohno – who managed to get up and snatch silver – has just about, 17 years later, got to grips with what happened.
“I had written him off – he himself had written the race off,” Ohno said with a still somewhat incredulous laugh. “Steven had called me three days before the final – at the time he was working for the skating manufacturer that made my skates – and he said, ‘Hey man, I know you are competing in the final, you look amazing out there, if you wouldn’t mind please giving a shout out during your media interviews to our skate boot company, we would be much obliged’.
“But I am friends with every single one of those athletes in that race and if there was one guy who I felt had really paid his dues, been to hell and back with injuries and all different types of challenges, it was Steven Bradbury.”
Things got only marginally less surreal in his next final, the 1500m.
“It was very strange too,” Ohno agreed. “I had won everything the previous year. I was the guy with the bullseye on my back, I was expected to win, and I crossed the line second.”
But in contrast to the Bradbury race, second was enough to secure the gold with the first-place finisher, the Republic of Korea’s Kim Dong-Sung, subsequently disqualified for blocking.
“To this day I have not seen many races like the 1000m and the 1500m in Salt Lake City. They were such freak events,” Ohno said.
The USA skater, famed for his smooth but powerful technique, went on to win a second Olympic gold, in the 500m at the Turin 2006 Games, before bringing his wild ride to a close with a silver and two bronze medals at Vancouver 2010.
“Psychologically and mentally and knowledge-wise I felt best in 2010,” Ohno said. “Physically, I would say my peak for raw power and raw talent was from 1999 to 2003. I was an animal.”
Those days are now well behind him and the man who continues to mix TV commitments with global business interests and a love of dancing is not, even for a minute, hankering after the past.
“I would say that life after competitive athletics is definitely more interesting because of all the different opportunities and the space for personal growth.”