Pack Animal

Apolo Ohno blazes through one of the flashiest events on ice: short-track racing, wherein five guys on razory blades take off in a clump—and only one leaves it behind

Jan 2, 2002
Outside Magazine
Cheat Sheet

Apolo Ohno
World Cup Medals:
17 gold, five silver, five bronze
Look For Him On:
February 16, 20, and 23
Breakout Moment:
A 12-year-old Ohno ripped up his in-line skates to jury-rig his first pair of blades.

Ohno > Olympic 1,500-meter qualifier, October 2001

UPDATE: Charges that Ohno conspired to fix race at U.S. trials dropped.

WITH A NAME LIKE a Marvel Comics hero, Apolo Ohno arrives this month in Utah poised to become a star on ice. After dominating last year's World Cup short-track speed-skating season—Ohno swept the overall championship and the individual 500-meter, 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter, and 3,000-meter titles—the 19-year-old Seattle native could well end up as the first American man in the sport's history to wear Olympic gold. "When he's on his game," says Susan Ellis, his coach, "he has been unstoppable."
And what a game it is. Short trackers are cunning pack racers, their contest a Roller Derby without elbows. They zip around a rink in a five-man knot, cutting ice at 30 miles an hour on 17-inch blades that could flense a whale. Fallen long-track skaters suffer only embarrassment; downed short-trackers hit the boards like cannonballs.

"Long-track seemed kind of boring to me," says Ohno, who switched from in-line skates to blades at age 12, after catching a broadcast of the short-track finals in Lillehammer. "I need the intensity of the pack." Two years later, Ohno beat four-time Olympian Andy Gabel to take the U.S. title. But when the Nagano Olympic trials rolled around in 1998, Ohno found himself fed up with the rigorous demands of training, and didn't even make the team. "My attitude towards skating," he later said, "was crap." Soon after, realizing he'd blown it, Ohno retooled everything: Diet, training regimen, skating style, and, most of all, his head. "At the world-class level, everyone comes with the same strength and speed," he says. "The difference between first place and fifth is all in strategy and mental edge."

He'll have the timing and drafting down, but to lead the way at the Salt Lake Ice Center, Ohno will have to play a little catch-up. The September 11 attacks canceled the American team's participation in this year's opening World Cup events in China and Japan, so Ohno will compete with only a half-season under his belt. Still, according to the now-retired Gabel, his momentum makes him a favorite for gold. "When the other guys expect you to win, you've already almost got 'em beat," he says. "That's what's happening with Apolo now."

The "other guys"—contenders like South Korea's Kim Dong-Sung, Canada's Mark Gagnon, and China's Li JiaJun, all from countries that traditionally dominate the sport—will try to get inside the American's skull and throw a split second of doubt into his race. If his inner game holds, though, he'll hobgoblin their minds instead. They'll toe the line, glance at his cherry-red helmet, and think: Oh, no.

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