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Launch of Apolo
S.L. Price
February 04, 2002
He defies the image of Olympic golden boy, but pack speed skater Apolo Ohno of the U.S. could become the Games' biggest star
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February 04, 2002

Launch Of Apolo

He defies the image of Olympic golden boy, but pack speed skater Apolo Ohno of the U.S. could become the Games' biggest star

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Here he comes, breaking out of a slouch, cutting short a yawn, slicing step by icy step into his moment. Here he comes, the U.S. athlete most likely to leave Salt Lake City with a fistful of medals, skating too far back in the pack, his calm sending his coaches into profane exasperation: Move your ass to the front! Get up there! Can he make his move, find the gaps, slip the traps? Will he fall as he did once in a four-lap time trial, sliding on both elbows and one knee into a curve, only to pop back up in traffic and into the race? Will he go spinning into the wall? Here he comes, long hair strapped under his helmet, skates sprinkled with glitter. Are you ready to care?

Here comes 19-year-old Apolo Ohno, the name summing up divine talent and ungodly trouble. Here comes the next U.S. Olympic hero—so long as he can avoid a repeat of his 1998 meltdown, so long as he can handle the Nike-sparked, IMG-fueled, NBC-oiled hype machine. Here he comes, leaning into a turn at 35 mph, dragging behind him a sport that few Americans know and fewer care about. He's no one's idea of a hibernal darling. The Winter Games have usually celebrated middle-class pastimes, Norman Rockwell-style. The athletes who have taken the grand prizes (endorsements, gold medals, a lifetime's hold on our affection) most often have been mainstreamers from the moneyed sports of figure skating, hockey and skiing; even long-track speed skating gods such as Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen gave off that sweet Midwestern scent of white bread rising.

Now comes Ohno, a diamond stud in his ear, a whiff of scandal in his wake. He is a serious contender for four Winter Olympic gold medals, in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the 5,000-meter relay. Never mind that his sport, short-track speed skating, has been in the Games only since 1992. It's an exhilarating spectacle, the Olympic equivalent of Roller Derby. No U.S. man has been better at negotiating the anarchy of the 111-meter oval than Ohno, who won two gold medals and a silver at the 2001 World Championships and finished first on last season's World Cup circuit. "When focused, he's pretty much unbeatable," says the Americans' short-track coach, Sue Ellis.

Focus, however, is Apolo's Achilles' heel. He tends to get distracted, but then, growing up, he had plenty of distractions. His father, Yuki, a Japanese hairdresser, raised Apolo alone in Seattle after Yuki's marriage to Apolo's mother, an American named Jerrie Lee, soured, and she dropped out of their lives. Apolo, a latchkey kid, fell in with a crowd of petty criminals and juvenile delinquents. He always burned, he says, with "this mad energy." He dropped out of an honors program in junior high school because his friends thought it was uncool. A former coach says Apolo once claimed that he'd faced gunfire, but Ohno denies that and now prefers to cloak his past in vagueness. He often ends sentences with the prevailing teen evasion, "Whatever." He shrugs when asked about the mother who left him when he was a year old; he knows little about her and professes to have no interest in learning more about her. His father will have it no other way. "There's no story about her," Yuki says. "No story. It's insignificant to what he is now. We've got to keep it that way."

Meanwhile, none of Apolo's official bios, and none of the stories written about him since 1997—when at 14 he became the youngest U.S. short-track champion—mention that he has a half brother. When the subject is broached, Apolo pauses and then describes the brother as "about 10 years older" and no factor in his upbringing. Asked if the brother lives in Seattle, Apolo says, "I don't know. You're not going to get hold of him." Asked if he speaks with him, Apolo says, "Not at this point."

He says this while sitting in a cafeteria at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Ohno is but weeks from his dominating and controversial performance at the short-track trials in Salt Lake City in December and only months from taking the biggest sports stage the world offers. He's in the elite, and that alone is testament to his father's will and fear. "It was a mystery," Yuki says of fatherhood during his first years with Apolo. "I was incompetent. I didn't think I could pull this thing off."

Then again, it wasn't Yuki's first attempt at defying convention. In the early 1970s the 18-year-old Yuki, the son of a university vice president, rebelled against the Tokyo academic life in which he was raised, defying his parents and moving to the U.S. After failing as an accounting student, he drifted into hair-dressing and studied at a Vidal Sassoon salon in London. He traveled all over Europe and to New York City to work the hair shows. In 1980 he opened his Seattle shop—Yuki's Diffusions—married Lee and figured his peripatetic life might slow.

He had no idea. He and Lee split in 1983—Yuki will not say why—and they agreed, Yuki says, that little Apolo would be better off with a father who worked 12-hour days and had no relatives to help him. His fashionista pals drifted off. "Everything changed," Yuki says. "I had to change the diaper. I was completely out of the circle. Those people don't talk about kids."

Sometimes Apolo would be in day care; sometimes he'd be sitting in the back of the shop watching his father mousse and clip. Customers still remember the little boy in his Halloween costume as night came down, waiting impatiently for his dad to close so they could trick or treat. Yuki tried everything to keep Apolo occupied—choir, swimming, roller skating—but the kid was a handful. He'd climb over a fence at day care, eat rocks and dirt. At eight he began taking care of himself after school, coming and going at will. His junior high school was rife with fighting; boys, proud of their time in juvy, plotted to blow up the toilets. Apolo spent afternoons by himself or, worse, with guys nearing their 20s while he hadn't yet reached his teens.

By the time he was 13, Apolo would be gone from home on weekends, flopping at the houses of friends, staying up all night. Sports weren't helping. He had graduated from in-line skates to ice and the short-track scramble he'd discovered watching the 1994 Olympics on TV. He quickly won three age-group titles. Yuki drove him all over—into Canada, out to Chicago, silently hoping success would be enough to keep Apolo out of trouble. It wasn't. He and Yuki often fought, Yuki threatening to send his son to military school. Yuki could sense those delinquents sucking Apolo into a wasted life. "And he didn't know how bad those guys really were," Apolo says. "One guy was in the newspaper every week for the houses and cars he robbed. People got shot, people got stabbed—or went to jail."

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