We have liftoff
Ohno takes second in 1,000-meter heat in Olympic debutPosted: Wednesday February 13, 2002 10:05 PM
Updated: Thursday February 14, 2002 12:08 AM
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Apolo Anton Ohno stepped out from behind the wall and thousands of fans who've never seen a short-track race burst into wild applause.
Forget the hype. Enough of the controversy. It was time for one of America's best Olympic hopes to hit the ice Wednesday night.
Ohno began his quest for four medals by finishing second in his 1,000-meter heat, good enough to push him to Saturday's quarterfinals.
He came back to anchor the U.S. team that won its semifinal heat in the 5,000 relay, electrifying the sellout crowd of 15,394 when he burst away from the Italian team with about seven laps to go. Ohno finished off the victory by gliding across the line on one skate, punching a fist in the air.
"My heart rate definitely went up," he said. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime."
It was not a good night for four-time Olympian Amy Peterson, who carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony. She was eliminated in the 1,500 semifinals.
"I knew it was going to be tough," said Peterson, who began her heat at the back of the pack and was more than a half-lap behind at the end. "I just ran out of juice."
Ko Gi-Hyun won the 1,500 final, the first short-track medal of the games. The 15-year-old South Korean became the youngest individual medalist in short-track history.
Another South Korean, Choi Eun-Kyung, took silver and Evgenia Radanova of Bulgaria claimed bronze.
Ohno didn't have a chance to win any medals on the opening night of this crazy sport -- the women's 1,500 was the only final. Not that it mattered. The fans made it clear who they came to see.
"Ohno! Ohno!" was the roar from the upper deck. Another fan held up a sign that said, "Oh-No! Oh Yes!"
The 5-foot-7 teen-ager, nicknamed "Chunky" for the stumpy body that allows him to virtually lay on the ice in the turns, showed enough flair to leave everyone satisfied.
The relay, in which four teams have four skaters each circling the ice, resembles an L.A. freeway in rush hour. Not surprisingly, there was a frightening crash which sent two skaters slamming into the padded wall.
South Korean star Min Ryoung had to be carried off the ice on a stretcher, and his team -- expected to be one of the America's strongest challengers -- was disqualified.
The officials ruled that Min impeded American Rusty Smith before taking out Nicola Rodigari of Italy. Ryoung was taken to a hospital emergency room for treatment of hip and back injuries.
"It's definitely unfortunate," Ohno said. "It would be more exciting to have them toe to toe."
Smith also advanced in the men's 1,000, setting an Olympic record in the process. But all eyes at the Salt Lake Ice Center were on Ohno.
The former inliner from Tacoma, Wash., took a deep breath as he toed the starting line. Ohno settled in behind World Cup champion Kim Dong-Sung of South Korea, who won two medals at Nagano four years ago.
With the top two skaters advancing to the next round, Ohno knew there was no need to challenge Kim as they pulled away from the other two skaters.
Still, the former hellion with flowing brown hair and a soul patch below his lips couldn't resist a chance to give the fans a thrill. With just over a lap to go, Ohno daringly dipped to the inside of the straightaway and nearly pulled even with Kim, stealing a glance at his rival.
Just as quickly, Ohno pulled out and tucked in behind the Korean, looking back with a half-lap to go just to make sure no one was challenging.
"He made it to the next round and that's all we're out there for right now," Smith said.
Skating in a separate heat, Smith set the Olympic record of 1 minutes, 28.183 seconds. He wasn't overly impressed.
"It's kind of slow," Smith said. "But it's nice to get it and hold it for three days."
In the relay, Ohno got an inadvertent poke in the eye from an Australian skater, but came back to blow away the Italians.
Ohno, also bothered by the flu, is expected to win more medals than any other American -- maybe even four golds. He ranked first in all three individual distances during his last full World Cup season and was part of the world championship relay team.
But Ohno also was tainted by controversy, stemming from allegations by another skater that he conspired to fix a race at the national trials so a close friend also would make the Olympic team.
An arbitrator ruled there wasn't enough evidence to throw Ohno off the team, and his accuser withdrew the complaint.
"At first, there was tension," said Ron Biondo, another member of the relay. "When we got off the plane in Salt Lake City, we knew we couldn't blow this off. We said, 'Let's not act like little kids. Let's grow up.'"
Ohno hopes to give the Americans -- at the very least -- their first short-track medal in a men's event since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1992.
American Erin Porter was disqualified in the 1,500 for clipping skates with another skater, knocking her out of the race.
"I'm bummed, but I'm not stressed about it," said Porter, who has two events left. "I never imagined I would have been disqualified for clicking skates."