Speed skater Apolo Ohno, an eight-time Olympic medalist, entertained and inspired St. Thomas students, faculty and alumni while discussing his transformation from troubled teenager to dedicated athlete Tuesday, Feb. 21, in the Anderson Student Center.
Ohno’s speech, titled “Always Give 100 percent,” highlighted how his young adult life in Seattle consisted of remarkable promise on the ice, but his “crazy energy” and questionable friendships threatened his future. Had Ohno’s father, Yuki, not been a driving force in helping his son develop his gift, Ohno said that he thinks he would have been “just another statistic.”
“When I was 14, I was hanging out with kids that were significantly much older than I was and doing things they should not have been doing and things that I definitely should not have been doing,” Ohno said.
After learning how to speed skate from watching Canadian athletes in Vancouver, Ohno was offered a spot in the junior developmental program in Lake Placid, N.Y., upon recognizing his potential to be the “next big prodigy.” His father immediately realized the magnitude of this opportunity and decided that Ohno must pursue it. However, after his father dropped him off at the airport, Ohno immediately called a friend and begged him to pick him up.
Ohno’s father quickly discovered he had not reported to Lake Placid, and after a few “anger-filled” weeks, Ohno was taken to the airport again with his father by his side on the flight.
The first weeks of training proved helpful for Ohno, as he discovered his love for the ice and passion for the sport.
“I started making friends and started to enjoy the competitiveness of short-track speed skating,” Ohno said. “I started to notice that I had a pretty decent talent for it.”
Ohno went on to finish first in the world team senior trials. Instead of spending the off-season training, he returned back to Seattle and hung out with a “bad crowd of friends.” At this point, Ohno said he started to “self-destruct,” which resulted in a last-place finish at the 1998 Olympic trials.
“I did not believe I had the talent,” Ohno said. “I did not dedicate myself in the way my father had shown me when I was a kid.”
In a final effort to try and get Apollo to dedicate himself to the sport, Ohno’s father left him in a secluded cabin with no technology and one final ultimatum.
“I needed to come to terms on which path I wanted to take,” Ohno said. “(My father said), ‘If you want to continue on in speed skating, you need to dedicate yourself.’’’
Junior Karly Harrod said this part of Ohno’s speech was especially interesting.
“My favorite part was when he talked about when his dad stuck him in the cabin to deal with his life decision,” Harrod said. “It sounded like the perfect place with no distractions.”
Junior Kassie Atwood said that this must have been a difficult time for Ohno to make such a big decision as a 15-year-old.
“Figuring out what you want to do with your life is the hard part,” Atwood said.
Ohno said he ultimately decided to resume training and set real goals for himself that could be achieved with his high level of talent.
He eventually earned the last spot on the U.S. World Team, and when it came time for off-season training, Ohno did not return to his old habits.
“I shut everything out, and I outlined this plan for myself,” Ohno said. “I used to watch skating tapes every single day when I was training.”
His new training plan paid off. In the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Ohno walked away with a gold and a silver medal. When he arrived at the 2006 Turin Olympics, Ohno was in even better shape and had more focus on what he wanted to achieve. He won a gold and two bronze medals that year.
After the 2006 Olympics, Ohno decided to take a small break from speed skating. His manager approached him with a fresh opportunity, a spot on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. At first, Ohno was apprehensive about joining the show, but he ultimately agreed. His decision turned out to be a good one; he was crowned champion of his season.
Ohno then decided to start training for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. With three years to train, he set even higher goals for himself weight-wise and body-wise. Ohno dedicated every day to his training because in his sport, training is “the only thing you can control.”
“I wanted to have zero regrets by the time I got to Vancouver because I have no control over the outcome of the finals,” Ohno said.
When Ohno arrived at the 2010 games, he was in the best shape of his life and was ready to perform. Ohno won a silver and two bronze medals at the games and became the most-decorated American winter Olympic athlete ever.
Harrod said hearing Ohno’s background makes his success more impressive.
“I thought it was inspiring, especially when he talked about his struggles,” Harrod said. “Hearing him talk about his transformation was really cool.”
Looking back on his career, Ohno said he does not believe the moments on the podium are the defining ones.
“My father told me a long time ago that champions are made when no one is watching,” Ohno said. “What you do when nobody else is there and your coach is not there is what is going to define you as a human being.”
Hayley Schnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.