Before Apolo Anton Ohno, almost nobody watched short-track speed skating. The sport was too quirky. The difference between winning and losing, between gold and gone, was too whimsical. It was frozen roller derby. The last skater standing won, or so it seemed. "It's the kind of sport where you have to prepare yourself and then hope that you're chosen by the gods," U.S. Olympian Jordan Malone said. Sometimes the skater who crosses the finish line first doesn't win. Sometimes skaters jump the starting gun and get away with it. Sometimes, if a major crash happens in front of the field, the slowest skater can win. "It's very unpredictable and very dangerous," U.S. Olympian Allison Baver said. When Ohno, a Seattle native and former inline skater, took up the sport and started winning medals in 2002 at Salt Lake City, he made short track quadrennially relevant.
He was charismatic. He got a Nike contract. He was invited to Bill Clinton's salons. He became one of NBC's faces of the Winter Games. He was like nobody his sport had seen.
"He's our Babe Ruth," said Malone, 25, a native of Denton, Texas, who also began as an inline skater. "He's our heavy hitter. He's the face of our sport, both socially and performance-wise."
Ohno got on Dancing With the Stars and won. And he still works out with his teammates as if he has never won a race, as if he still has everything to prove.
"Believe me, nobody on our team is jealous of him," Malone said. "We see how hard he works. We see all the time he puts in. … He's just an amazing dude."
Ohno, 27, has won five medals in two Olympics — two golds, a silver and two bronze — and is poised to make U.S. Olympic history in these Games. He needs one medal to match speed skater Bonnie Blair as the most-decorated U.S. Winter Olympian. Two medals would make him the most successful.
"He is hands down the best athlete this sport has ever brought to the table," said Baver, 29, a former girlfriend. "And to train with an athlete like that every day is pretty cool. To win a gold medal, like he's done, and to keep going, with all the other opportunities outside of the sport that he has been offered, you have to have a passion.
"He's never satisfied. He's always looking for more. Skating is something he absolutely loves, and I kind of look at him as like a Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong comes back because he loves it and that's it. And I know that the only reason Apolo is skating at these Olympic Games is because he loves it."
Ohno takes a lot of pride in staying competitive in a sport where two-year cycles cast competitors by the wayside.
"Many athletes get left behind during those cycles of changes, but I've been lucky enough to be here and be solid throughout," said Ohno, who has been racing since he was 14.
For these Games, Ohno said, he has dropped 25 pounds from his 5-foot-8 frame, to 145 — and 2 1/2 percent body fat — the result of a strict diet and three-a-day workouts. Ohno said he is "in the best shape of my life."
But he has been steadfast in his resistance to talking about medals or passing Blair.
"Every single day when I train, when I prepare, when I eat, when I go to sleep, everything has been about no regrets. That's been my mentality towards preparing for these Olympic Games," he said.
"I'd like to finish and cross the line of my last race and have absolutely no regrets and smile regardless of the outcome. Because that to me means I have left absolutely every single thing I can out on the ice."