Ohno hangs in despite multiple distractions


SALT LAKE CITY -- Six ugly stitches in his left thigh. A server-crashing wave of hate e-mail, including some from halfway around the world. A South Korean protest seeking to strip him of his only gold medal.

With all these distractions, can Apolo Anton Ohno become only the second American to take home a four-medal booty in a single Winter Games?

With the footwork of Alexei Yagudin and the explosive speed of Michael Johnson, Ohno, 19, could go home with a legacy near Eric Heiden's five gold medals in the 1980 Lake Placid Games.

Internet death threats won't rattle Ohno, and an arbitration panel let him keep his gold. But the Seattle teen-ager has gotten little sleep since earning the gold three nights ago, and the week-old stitches sewn into his left thigh after his crash in the 1,000-meter final may hinder his initial burst off the start in the free-for-all 500 -- a mere 4½ laps.

"I'm not sure I can get off the line fast enough," Ohno said. "Hopefully, I'll just get to the final. The 500 is going to be wild."

"I think Apolo is ready to do what he's been primed to do," Ohno's teammate Amy Peterson said. "He's young, but he can hold his own. I've been very impressed with how he's kept himself together through the good, the bad and the indifferent. There's a reason he was No. 1 in the world in every distance last season."

The 5,000-meter relay is another story. Ohno, Rusty Smith, Ron Biondo and Dan Weinstein have risen above the controversy and conflicts caused by last month's allegations of race fixing. Biondo claimed he overheard Ohno shouting, "Don't pass!" during the 1,000-meter trials, supporting Tommy O'Hare's accusations that Ohno helped his friend Shani Davis get onto the Olympic team.

The Americans, however, seem to have sidestepped any schisms, hitting the rewind button and taking the team dynamic back to where it was when this same crew won the 2001 worlds.

"The relay team has managed to stick together," Peterson said. "Ron realizes that his one chance at gold is to be part of this team. Same with Dan. So they've come together."

So, is it just a business arrangement?

"On the ice, they have no problems," Peterson said. "But you'd never know there was a problem off the ice either. I don't know it myself half the time, and I know those guys well. I'm very proud to be their teammate."

The U.S. crew must avoid what happened the last time this squad made the finals. At a competition in Calgary earlier this month, the Americans were disqualified along with the Koreans, leaving gold and silver to Japan and Canada.

So tonight, Ohno shoots for the record books. But this likely won't be the last time he rockets across Olympic ice. He'll probably stick around for Torino, and the 2010 Games could be on Ohno's radar.

Then perhaps the question will be, Heiden who?

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.