Ohno ready to skate into limelight tonight for American team


He's a latchkey kid, hellbent on hell-raising, with an unusual name, a wild haircut and dreams.

Get ready, America. Apolo Anton Ohno is coming.

Beginning tonight at 8, the 2002 Winter Games may very well belong to a long-haired, 19-year-old kid with a little goatee.

Who cares that he's dominant in short-track speed skating, a sport much of the world knows little about? He's got charisma and swagger, and plenty to spare. He's also shooting for the impossible - four gold medals in one Olympic Games. And the funny thing about it is, he just might pull it off.

"There's definitely a lot of pressure on me," says Ohno, who will compete in the 1,000-meter final tonight. "It's natural. I'm human. At the same time, I'm going to do my thing and just pretty much try to perform regardless of what's happening around me."

Ohno has never been one to sweat his surroundings. Raised by his father in Seattle, after his parents split up when he was 3, he grew up with a wild streak and a chip on his shoulder that constantly got him into trouble at a young age.

In day care, Ohno would climb fences, throw rocks and bounce off the walls. In junior high, he'd pick fights, laugh at authority and once plotted to blow up the school toilets. By the time he was 13, he had become friends with just about every punk in the neighborhood. His father, Yuki Ohno, a Japanese immigrant who worked 12-hour days at a hair-styling salon, was powerless to control his son.

"I was a latchkey kid when I was 8 years old," Ohno says. "If I wanted to get stuff done, I did it myself. I was hanging around with the wrong crowd, mostly gang members. Sometimes I'd stay with friends and not go home for three days."

Somehow, it all started to change in 1994 when he saw short-track speed skating at the Olympics on television. The roller derby wildness of the sport - where skaters race around a tiny track at high speeds and are often nearly parallel to the ice when they turn - was perfect for Ohno's short attention span. He quickly won a handful of titles for his age group, and showed serious promise.

So much so that his father decided to ship him off to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., to train full time in the sport at age 14. Yuki Ohno's hope wasn't that his son would one day race in the Olympics, but that he would simply stay out of trouble. With a hug and a plane ticket, his father dropped him off at the entrance to the Seattle airport.

However, Ohno never got on the plane.

"I was totally rebellious against my father," Ohno says. "I had a friend come pick me up, and I stayed at his house for a week. I wasn't really into skating. I just wanted to hang out with my friends."

When Ohno finally returned home, his father persisted, and it wasn't so easy to give his dad the slip the second time. Yuki Ohno walked his son to the terminal and practically strapped him into his airplane seat.

"He waited in the lounge with me," Ohno says. "I hated it. The first month I was there, I felt caged. All I had was to train and go to school."

Eventually though, Ohno began to see the light, thanks to speed skating.

He fell in love with the sport, lost weight, and trained harder. There were few things quite as thrilling as riding a 1-milimeter blade at 35 mph, flying around corners and passing everyone in sight.

"It's like having no skates, like running unimpaired," Ohno says. "I feel it under my toes. I feel every ripple in the ice."

At 14, Ohno became the youngest-ever national champion in 1997 and seemed poised to make a big splash in Nagano. The fact that the Olympics were being held in Japan, his father's home country, didn't escape him at all. It also made it hurt that much more when he failed to make the U.S. team, finishing last at the U.S. trials.

His father rented a cabin on the Washington coast called Iron Springs, dumped Ohno there, and told him to contemplate his future.

"I spent about a week in a cabin by myself, thinking about the whole year and trying to decide if I wanted to continue to pursue this or go back to school," Ohno says. "I decided it's my gift to skate and something that I love."

Amazingly, it all came together in that cabin. Ohno rededicated himself and won the U.S. title the next year. The company he kept didn't change, but the way they ran their lives did.

"A lot of friends used to be gang-bangers, but they turned themselves around and they're still my best friends," he said.

In the 2001 season, he won the World Cup championship, winning titles at every Olympic distance: 500, 1,000 and 1,500. He even set an American record in the 500, and will anchor the American 5,000-meter relay. Even a distraction during the U.S. trials, where he was accused of conspiring to help his friend, Shani Davis, make the team, hasn't derailed his focus. American Tom O'Hare filed suit against Ohno and Davis, but he eventually withdrew his lawsuit.

"I got my focus back pretty much the minute I stepped back on the ice," Ohno says. "My main concern was that it cost me some training time. Other than that, it didn't throw me off."

He has also come to terms with his father and his wild past, though he wouldn't change any of it.

"I took the right path when I became 16, and I realized that this was what I wanted to do," Ohno says. "I have no regrets. Everything I've done has made me stronger. My pops was strict, but I got my work ethic from him. We're closer than ever now."

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