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In 1995 Patrick Wentland, then a development coach for speed skaters at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, saw Apolo racing in the junior national team trials in Saratoga Springs. Wentland was impressed by the boy's precocious strength, and Yuki, seeing the coach's interest, sprang. He asked Wentland to admit his son, then almost 14, to the center—even though the minimum age was 15, even though Apolo would have to move 2,800 miles from home.
No one that young had ever been admitted, but Wentland, in talks with the USOC, campaigned hard for Apolo. He wouldn't have been so persistent had he known that the kid had no interest in coming. In June 1996, weeks after Apolo's 14th birthday, Yuki dropped him at the entrance to the Seattle airport. Apolo didn't make it past the first pay phone. "I made a call, and I was out," he says. "I had it all planned. Dad told me, I know what's best for you, you need to listen.' He comes from that Asian background; he's strict. But I'm 14, I don't want to do anything anybody says. So I had a friend pick me up. I was gone."
After a week's standoff—with Apolo at a friend's house, Yuki fuming at home where he'd received phone calls in which Apolo refused to say where he was, and Wentland wondering what had happened to the kid he'd gambled on—Yuki played his final card. He called his ex-wife's sister in Portland and implored her to come and talk sense into his son. Impressed by such obvious desperation, Apolo returned home. Getting him to Wentland was another matter. "I practically have to tie him with rope into the airplane seat," says Yuki, who went along on the flight this time. After they arrived in Lake Placid, Yuki startled Wentland by assuring him that Apolo would pull some stunt to get himself kicked out of the centre. Yuki's final words to Wentland: "Good luck."
Apolo's first month at the center was a washout. He had Utile interest in training, and whenever Wentland led a five-mile run to the lake, Apolo would drop out of the pack with a buddy and head for Pizza Hut. "I hated it there," he says. "I didn't talk to anybody. I didn't want anybody to help me. Then I thought, I'm having a good time skating, my dad's not here bossing me around, I'm young and I can do whatever I want."
It didn't hurt that in August Wentland handed out the results of the group's body-fat test. Apolo—or Chunky, as he had been nicknamed—came in last. "That got him," says Wentland, who would go on to become U.S. national coach in 1999. "He came up to me and said, 'I don't want to be the fattest, I don't want to be the slowest, I want to be the best.' He totally changed. Every workout from then on, he had to win. I'd never seen that kind of turnaround so fast. Even now, at this level, if he decides one day that he's not feeling right, he won't skate well. But if he knows that he can win, I don't care if all the other skaters are having the best day of their lives, he'll beat them."
Such determination, combined with Apolo's gift for decoding a race's rapidly shifting patterns, seemed a recipe for instant greatness. In 1997 Apolo, not yet 15, won the U.S. championship, though in this sport the typical athlete peaks at 24. He seemed fated to make noise at the '98 Winter Games in Nagano. At home in Seattle, though, he still hung out with his old crowd of troublemakers and battled with Yuki, and the prospect of carrying the U.S. short-track team proved a crushing burden. Undertrained, overweight and exhausted, Apolo finished 16th in a field of 16 in the U.S. Olympic trials and left Lake Placid shattered. "I wasn't sure I'd ever see him again," Wentland says.
Yuki and Apolo flew back to Seattle together, but instead of going home they drove 2½ hours west to a cabin Yuki rented on the Washington coast in an isolated spot called Iron Springs. "You think it over," Yuki said. "If speed skating is not what you want to do, I want to know." Then Yuki drove away, leaving Apolo for eight days with no television, no phone, no car—only some provisions, the gray ocean, constant rain and his own angry, confused thoughts.
So Apolo began to run—barefoot—on the rocky beach or along a narrow highway nearby. A massive blister grew on the bottom of one foot, but he pushed on. One day, as the rain pounded him mercilessly, he stopped in his tracks on the beach. What am I doing? he asked himself. He realized that if he didn't want to end up like his friends in Seattle, he had to get more serious about his life and his skating career. With the rain still falling, he took a deep breath and began to run again.
The following year Ohno won the U.S. title. Since then he has only gotten better, becoming American speed skating's big hope. Although Heiden, Blair and Jansen drew lots of attention during their Olympic reigns, "we [the sport] never had the chance to cash in," says U.S. Speedskating president Fred Benjamin. "Heiden immediately went to medical school [after winning five Olympic golds in 1980]. Bonnie does a few things, but she's not going out there [enough]. Dan's doing his thing, mostly for his sister's charity. We need someone to be seen."
Indeed, competition from hockey and figure skating has only eroded the gains made by the big three of American speed skating. "It's a dying sport," Wentland says. "If Apolo scores big in Salt Lake and comes across as the personality he is, we finally have a shot to get noticed."