The eight-time Olympic medalist will swing by his hometown this weekend as he prepares for the Ironman World Championships in the fall.
Just minutes off a six-hour ride, the bike seat’s shape still indented on his posterior, Apolo Ohno phones at the appointed hour.
“I just got off the bike,” Ohno says by way of introduction a couple days ago. “A 100-mile bike ride. That’ll probably help me lose my spare tire.”
The above statement reads incredulous on two fronts. Apolo Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete ever, his eight-medal haul coming in the maniacal, anaerobic sport of short track speed skating, monotonously pedaling for six hours?
And the lithe Ohno—name a male athlete who ever looked better in speed skating’s shrink-wrap packaging—toting a spare tire?
“I was retired,” confesses Ohno, “and I was getting a little chubby.”
His 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympic stardom in the rearview mirror, Ohno, now 32, is redefining his athleticism this year. Supported by a campaign funded by Chocolate Milk, Ohno is transforming himself from a fast-twitched speed skater to an endurance athlete.
On Saturday, Ohno will join 18,000 other runners and walkers at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle Marathon and ½ Marathon. Ohno, who raced the 2011 New York City Marathon (3 hours, 25 minutes), will line up for the 13.1-miler.
His biggest endurance challenge and focal point of the campaign comes in October when he competes at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
“When you’re a retired athlete, you’re looking for something, you’re daring yourself to find something that sparks your interest to get back into shape,” says Ohno. “Skating, I love the sport. But I didn’t want to do that.
“I wanted to do something that was so against my comfort zone that it would be a challenge.”
The sport that made Ohno famous—not to mention earned him millions of dollars in endorsements—required him to sprint around a small oval track, lactic acid filling his quads, during races lasting from 40 seconds to 2.5 minutes. Now he’s talking six-hour bike rides. He once competed indoors, on ice. Come October he’ll be dealing with Kona’s dripping humidity, temperatures pushing triple digits and head buried in the aerobar position while he prays not to be toppled by the Big Island’s treacherous Mumuku Wind.
“I’d watch Ironman Hawaii on TV and I’d be shaking my head,” recalls Ohno. “I didn’t know how the hell they do it. They’re animals. It didn’t seem possible. … You know that’s the ultimate competition, one I wanted to do.”
Stepping outside his comfort zone seldom fazes Ohno. Witness his gold medal-winning performance on “Dancing With The Stars” in 2007.
“I didn’t know how to dance, nothing at all,” admits Ohno.
With Ohno still panting after his Latin-themed dance in the finals, lead judge Len Goodman said, “To sum you up, the word I’d use is commitment. I know I’ve been a bit tough on you a few times, but you always came back stronger. Like a real athlete, you keep coming back.”
Seconds later, Ohno told co-host Samantha Harris, “From beginning to end, this has been completely transforming.”
Ohno’s latest transformation takes him to Seattle this week, barely half an hour from his hometown of Federal Way, Wash. He may live in Los Angeles now but Ohno’s roots are in the Great Northwest. His father, Yuki, still lives in the area and still owns Yuki’s Diffusion salon in downtown Seattle.
(Ohno trivia alert: It was Yuki who created Apolo’s stylish long-haired look during his speed skating days. Today, he’s opting for a shorter ’do.)
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On returning to his roots, Ohno says, “I have so much love for Seattle. When I was 12 years old, I started being in the local paper. It’s my hometown.”
Incredibly, Saturday’s half marathon will be his first race of any kind in the Emerald City. The thought of touring old haunts accompanied by music intrigues him.
“It just makes the event more exciting, different,” he says. “I’m hoping to do these a lot more often.”
During a 35-minute phone conversation, Ohno comes across as a youthful 32-year-old, joyously soaking up the spoils after a cocooned, put-the-blinders-on athletic career.
Says Ohno, “My father told me, ‘Apolo, when you do something, No. 1, you can’t do it forever. You have this incredible gift as an Olympic athlete. Don’t throw it away. Train each day like it’s your last one.’”
The photogenic icon obviously enjoys the Hollywood glitz. He was a “Project Runway” judge and walked the red carpet with “Dancing With The Stars” partner Julianne Hough at the 2007 “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” premier.
So, too, does he register as an appreciative man, knowing stardom created doors that otherwise never would have existed, much less opened.
For example, his swim-bike-run training is guided by eight-time Ironman Hawaii champion Paula Newby-Fraser.
“She’s tough,” says Ohno, who logged a three-day camp with Newby-Fraser this week in San Diego’s coastal North County. “But when you follow what she says, you feel amazing. When you don’t follow what she says, you feel funny.”
Offers Newby-Fraser, “He’s charming. He’s a very, very charming young man. And he’s a talented athlete. Just a raw, athletic talent.”
About The Author:
Don Norcross is a San Diego-based sports writer, follow him on Twitter @Don_Norcross.