Ohno is now marked man

Updated: September 30, 2005, 10:27 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

Apolo Anton Ohno is back for more.

He's not fazed when people want to turn him into a fashion icon or an object of international resentment, or when they only tune in to short-track speedskating for a few days every four years.

He's still voracious about winning -- maybe more so because he's a marked man and it keeps getting harder.

Apolo Ohno
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesApolo Anton Ohno has finished first overall on the World Cup circuit in two of the last three seasons.

"Now is not the time to relax,'' Ohno said. "I have the rest of my life to do that.''

Ohno became a darling of the home crowd at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City for the warrior's head bandana that held his mane of brown hair in check, his Velcro strip of a goatee and the agility and survival skills that resulted in two medals. U.S. fans warmed to the story of his father, Yuki, a Japanese-American hairstylist, raising his son alone to be a champion.

So what's Apolo been up to since Salt Lake? Some of it is same-old. Ohno, 23, still lives in a dormitory suite at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, where he's spent the last eight years.

It's a cocoon that would make some people feel claustrophobic. But Ohno, a seasoned pro who has been at his game for nearly 10 years, said being surrounded by young, ambitious athletes helps him maintain discipline and perspective.

"I didn't want to lose that hunger that I had going into 2002,'' he said. "I thought it was important to stay grounded.''

Ohno trains, travels to competitions and doesn't take a lot of vacation time. That drive has kept him among the leaders of the jostling pack-style sport in the lead-up to February's Turin Olympics. Ohno has finished first overall on the World Cup circuit in two of the last three seasons and won a silver medal at the World Championships earlier this year, winning the 1,000- and 3,000-meter events.

"He's got a big appetite,'' said Shani Davis, the long-track world champion who also competes in short-track and is one of Ohno's closest friends. "He wants to be the best there ever was. It all comes down to how bad you want it, and he wants it badder than anyone I know. It's a beautiful thing to be in his presence.''

The 5-foot-8 Ohno, whose weight is listed at 165 on his Web site, says he's leaner -- he won't say how much -- and stronger than he was four years ago. He's also thicker-skinned, by necessity. Success dunked him into a heady post-Olympics swirl of high-profile appearances and celebrity parties, and bought him the Lexus he parks at the OTC.

But it also had a dark side that continues to throw a shadow.

The weekend of Oct. 7, Ohno will face one of the most interesting challenges of his career when he competes at a World Cup event in Korea for the first time since the Salt Lake Games. Some fans from that nation have not forgiven him for taking home the gold medal in the 1,500-meter race after Korean skater Kim Dong-Sung, who finished first, was disqualified for blocking.

It mattered little that DQs are commonplace in short-track, where officials try to bring order to a chaotic sport with a sticky web of subjectively imposed rules. Or that Ohno was gamely skating with a stitched-up thigh courtesy of a crash in the 1,000-meter race, where he stumbled across the finish line for a silver medal. Or that Ohno had Korean friends growing up in Seattle, knows the culture and craves yuk gae jang, a spicy Korean beef-and-vegetable soup, on a regular basis.

Furious fans flooded the U.S. Olympic Committee with e-mails, causing the server to crash, and Ohno received death threats that prompted Olympic officials to give him special protection.

Hostility was still evident on a different playing field later that year, when a Korean soccer player performed a mocking pantomime of a speedskater after scoring a goal in the World Cup. In late 2003, the U.S. speedskating team decided to withdraw from a competition in Korea because of an orchestrated Internet campaign that was inciting fans against Ohno.

"It was hard for me to know that someone in an organization was directing people's anger toward me,'' Ohno said. "I'm no politician. I'm a sportsman. Sports is supposed to be pure. We're all trying to achieve the same thing.''

U.S. Speedskating president Andy Gabel said officials have been working to ensure that the competitive environment is safe for Ohno. "We have some concerns, but we've worked very closely with the Korean Skating Union and the U.S. Olympic Committee to make sure it's OK,'' Gabel said.

Ohno said he thinks the truly obsessive fans are in the minority and is determined not to let malcontents keep him from racing in Seoul. "I really am looking forward to going back,'' he said. "Hopefully it'll be a good experience.''

The team is competing this weekend in China, the first of the season's four World Cup events, where Ohno already had a goal medal on Friday. That circuit, which also includes two weekends in Europe, is shorter than the usual six because it's an Olympic year. Ohno must still skate in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Marquette, Mich., in December.

Another continual test for Ohno is the murky matter of team skating, a tactic outlawed but widely practiced anyway. Short-trackers, who race in groups of four to six at a time on a 111-meter oval, are supposed to compete as individuals. When they gang up and box someone in, it's frequently hard to distinguish from what could occur in the normal course of racing.

Some have called for the rule to be abolished because it can't be enforced, but for the time being, Ohno is often the lone American among platoons of Korean, Chinese and Canadian rivals and has to live with it.

He's armed himself by becoming one of the toughest skaters in the world to pass, deftly closing lanes behind him and occupying as much space as he can, and finding Houdini-like ways to slip out of jams. It's probably no coincidence that he regularly beats his friend Davis at a video game called "Street Fighter.''

"Many Asian cultures operate on a team level and they operate to win medals for their country,'' Ohno said. "They work against me as a team. Imagine Lance Armstrong with four [Team] CSC guys around him trying to mess him up, and no protection. That's the position I'm in every time I race these guys.

"To be able to break that chain is almost impossible. That's what makes me stand out.''

Davis said Ohno's "killer focus,'' constant self-analysis and thirst for learning has, and will continue to, keep him on top. Ohno attributes that approach to his father, whose counsel was infused with Zen philosophy.

"It's about dedicating 100 percent of your lifestyle to trying to perfect that one thing,'' Ohno said. "It's about mindfulness, not thinking, but being aware.''

The Turin Olympics will call for all the skills Ohno's been refining over the last four years, along with perhaps the hardest task -- keeping these fast times from going by in too much of a blur.

"More now than before, I'm telling myself to enjoy this,'' he said. "I have to have no fears. The energy that people radiate off each other during the Olympic Games is amazing."

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.