Apolo Ohno Has a Single Father Behind His Success


June 18, 2006 — -- On Feb. 20, 2002, Apolo Ohno stood atop the Olympic medalists' platforms in Salt Lake City, clutching the gold medal for the 1500-meter speed skating event. In a sense, he was standing on top of the world.

As Apolo smiled and waved to the cheering crowd, his father, Yuki Ohno, watched from the stands, his face beaming with pride.

This was more than just a crowning moment of athletic achievement. It was an emotional milestone in a once turbulent relationship between a father and the son he raised alone as a single parent.

Apolo was just one when his mother left. Yuki, a hair stylist with his own small salon in downtown Seattle, was on his own.

"I felt, you know, 'Can I do this?' " Yuki recalled. "I wasn't feeling confident at all. I was scared."

Apolo was an energetic, rambunctious little boy, so his father tried to channel that energy into sports. Apolo first tried swimming, then roller-skating. When in-line skates came into fashion, he quickly changed to rollerblading -- competitive rollerblading.

"At age three, he had shown me his unusual talent, especially in his mind, to be very, very daring," Yuki said. "He shows lots of athleticism."

Apolo just thought going faster than anyone else was fun.

"He saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," Apolo said.

Yuki would work long days in his salon, then drive hundreds of miles to rollerblading competitions. He once drove all the way to Michigan from their Washington home. Apolo quickly proved to be an outstanding blader. But in his early teens, as puberty set in, Apolo's relationship with his father became strained.

The father and son who used to escape together on weekends to Iron Springs, a beach resort on Washington's Pacific coast, began to argue, frequently.

"I think there was probably a period of time where we would just fight a lot, a lot, just about anything," Apolo said. "It was mostly instigated by me, for sure."

Watching the 1998 Olympics on television, the father and son discovered speed skating -- on ice. Yuki bought his son a pair of sped skates and an Olympic champion was in the making. Skating on ice around a track at up to 35 miles an hour came naturally to Apolo, so naturally, he was soon invited to join the U.S. Junior Olympic Development Team in Lake Placid, N.Y.

There was just one problem.

"I was really angry, I didn't want to go," Apolo said.

When his father dropped him off at the airport to fly to Lake Placid, Apolo waited until he left, then ran away. For two weeks, he stayed at friends' homes, sneaking in and out at night. Eventually, Yuki tracked him down and, this time, made sure he got on the plane.

Apolo quickly proved to be an Olympic-caliber speed skater. And as he got better, he liked the sport better.

"I started to realize, you know, this is kind of fun," he said. "I enjoyed speed skating and started learning more about it."

But at the trials for the 1998 Olympics, it all fell apart. Apolo finished dead last in a field of 16. He went home to Seattle in despair.

"My dad and I, we were still battling back and forth," Apolo said. "He said, 'Okay, you need to go to the ocean and contemplate, what are you gonna do?' "

For days, Apolo did little but run and think. It was a tough time for Yuki, too.

"I had to tell him," 'You have to do this alone, all by yourself in the cottage in a very rainy, cold isolated area,' " Yuki said. "It's very hard for me to tell him, but, 'You have to take this path to come to the decision on your own.' "

On the ninth day, Apolo called his dad and said simply, "I'm ready."

And he was. Having truly dedicated himself to speed skating, his confidence returned. In a matter of months, he was one of the fastest speed skaters in the world. At the Salt Lake City games, he took home a silver and gold. In Torino last winter, he bagged a gold, silver and bronze.

More important, as the years passed, Apolo began to understand what his father had sacrificed for him and what he meant to him.

"I have certain times that I have to myself, I'm on the plane or I'm in a hotel room and I think like, 'Wow' You're very grateful -- you know, that I was blessed to have such great dad. And he is so supportive."

Yuki said despite the travails he came to see single parenthood as a kind of opportunity.

"It was a tremendous experience to be with your child since age one," Yuki said. "And every segment of the steps he has to go through, I was with him."

They now call themselves "Team Apolo." It is a team with a very exclusive membership: just father and son.