Before the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in February, few people outside of the speedskating world knew of Apolo Anton Ohno.
But NBC clearly saw star potential in the photogenic athlete. The network ran promos for his short track races and kept viewers up to date on all things Ohno. Before he had raced his first heat, the 19-year-old former in-line skater from Seattle was on his way to becoming a worldwide sensation.
By the end of the Olympics–which Ohno left with a gold and silver medal–the plucky teen had the adoration of teenage girls worldwide and the distinction of being the most searched-for athlete on the Lycos Top 50, getting more hits than even Anna Kournikova.
“Honestly, I didn’t think about any of those things when I was competing,” Ohno says, phoning from Atlanta, where he was visiting a friend. “For four years, my No. 1 goal was going to the Olympics. I was just concentrating on racing.
”Luckily, I peaked at the exact right time and did really well. Now I can concentrate on a few other things until the next season begins.”
One thing he’ll be doing is signing autographs from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Marshall Field’s Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook. Jackie Santos, 11, has been hoping for an opportunity like this. She says she’s willing to skip karate class to meet him.
“I used to have pictures up of ‘N Sync in my locker, but now I have pictures of Apolo,” says the Schaumburg fifth-grader. “['N Sync is] kind of old now. But Apolo is really young and talented and stuff. I’ve even started speedskating lessons because of him. I hope I get to meet him so I can take his picture and get an autograph. That’d be really exciting.”
Ohno says, “It’s really flattering that anyone wants to meet me. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine ’cause I’m just me. But I guess I’d be really excited if I got to meet someone I admired, like [Michael] Jordan or [Muhammad] Ali.”
It’s too early to tell whether Ohno will go down as short track’s greatest. South Korea’s Kim Dong-Song has won more overall titles. But it wasn’t until Ohno’s rise that Americans began paying attention to the frenetic sport, which has been likened to roller derby on ice.
Ohno certainly isn’t the first American speedskating star. Eric Heiden was just as good-looking as Ohno is when he won five gold medals in long track at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. But he eschewed fame by heading straight to medical school and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. As for gold medalists Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair, they just don’t exhibit the kind of sex appeal that makes teens swoon.
When it comes to marketing potential, Ohno is a natural. Thanks to genetics–and a stylist dad who still cuts his hair–Ohno has the kind of lush locks that would have made Farrah Fawcett jealous during her heyday. Half Japanese and half Caucasian, Ohno has a megawatt smile and an edge to him as sharp as his 18-inch skate blades. Nike latched onto him before the Olympics. Others are negotiating with his agents now.
“Apolo is the best thing to happen to short track,” says Spiro Giotis, president of Milwaukee’s Pettit Center, where the World Short Track Speed Skating Team Championships were held last month. “Besides being one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen, he is just a great personality. Every Olympics has one athlete who stands out, and he was definitely it at this one.”
Ohno decided not to compete at the championships. He was criticized by some members of the media and the speedskating community for hiding behind his gold medal. He takes the flack in stride.
“I really hate competing when I’m not prepared,” Ohno says. “I had a lot of injuries at the Olympics, but it was the Olympics. I was a mess. My back hurt. My ankle, which I sprained really badly five months ago, hurt. It didn’t heal right, so when I sprained it again, it just got worse. I’ve never ever been injured like this before in my life. Physically I can overcome injuries, but mentally it’s another story. You have to be mentally prepared or you won’t win.”
Even without competitions, Ohno’s post-Olympics appearances kept him in the public eye. He charmed Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien as well as the shrieking girls in the audience. On Carson Daly’s “TRL,” he showed off some awesome break-dancing moves. And for Rolling Stone magazine, he peeled off his skating skins and modeled tight jeans and sexy shirts for a fashion layout.
“All that’s fun, but I love short track,” Ohno says. “That’s what it all comes down to.”