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When Apolo Anton Ohno passes the coaches' box at a short-track speedskating race, he sees a lot of familiar faces.

The box is filled with people he used to compete against. They have retired, leaving the sport to athletes with fresher legs.

And to Ohno.

"They're still there," says Ohno, 27. "But now, instead of on the ice with me, they're coaching skaters to try and beat me."

In a sport that subjects its athletes to the perils of pack-style racing at high speeds around tight corners, all while balancing on the thinnest of blades, Ohno endures. Even after gaining mainstream celebrity by winning Dancing With the Stars in 2007, the five-time Olympic medalist is back.

He's a famous guy, of course," Olympic teammate J.R. Celski says, "but it proves a lot that he's still doing it."

The Vancouver Games will be Ohno's third Olympics. He needs one medal to break a tie with Eric Heiden, who won five golds in long-track speedskating in the 1980 Games, and two to surpass Bonnie Blair, who has six career medals in long track, as the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian.

"It means a lot to me," Ohno says of that possibility. "I would be a fool to say that it's not in the back of my mind."

At the forefront is his determination to show his competitors — and their coaches — something new, because his racing tendencies had become as familiar as his trademark soul patch.

"Our coaching step toward this Olympics is a different Apolo," says U.S. assistant short-track coach Jimmy Jang, who has worked with Ohno since 2001. "We want to show them that it will be very difficult to compete with Apolo. We're making a new weapon."

Changing things up
The process has involved altering the cadence of Ohno's skating, testing several blades and skate boots and even changing Ohno's physical makeup — at just under 150 pounds, he is about 10 pounds lighter than he was for the 2006 Games, 20 pounds lighter than he was in 2002.

"When everybody runs and sprints, they all run at a certain rhythm that's natural to them," says Ohno, 5-8. "Same thing with skating. Trying to change that is very, very difficult. But if you're successful, you basically can throw the other teams off because they're not used to your steps and tempo."

Ohno struggled at times to produce results while making the changes. The World Cup overall winner in 2001, 2003 and 2005, he fell to 21st in the 2007-08 World Cup rankings. But he still was the overall champion in the 2008 world championships, where he won three medals, including gold in the 500.

While most skaters would not be able to perform at that level while trying so many new things, fellow Olympic short-track speedskater Allison Baver says Ohno "could probably put on a different boot today and race at the Olympics and win a medal."

Last season, Ohno won silver in the 1,000 and relay gold in the world championships. He waited until the most recent World Cup competitions, though, to unveil some of the technical changes he has been perfecting. In a World Cup event in November, his last international competition before the Olympics, he won the 1,000 and was second in the 1,500.

"He's stronger, he's better," teammate Travis Jayner says. "You need to sometimes be like a chameleon."

Ohno's status as the king of U.S. short-track speedskating has not changed for nearly a decade. He has won every overall national title since 2001.

"Experience plays a big role in how you perform, and he's had that to his advantage," says Celski, who was inspired to pursue short track after watching Ohno in the 2002 Games and then finished ahead of Ohno in two races at worlds and in a 1,500 race in the Olympic trials last year. "But the guy just trains hard, and that's all there is to it."
Under Jang and U.S. short-track head coach Jae Su Chun, Ohno has nearly doubled his training time from his 2002 preparations, from four to six hours a day to some 12-hour days now.

"The volume he does, the way he pushes himself mentally, it's unbelievable," U.S. short-track Olympian Kimberly Derrick says.

To commit to that level of dedication, Ohno walked away from commercial opportunities that came his way after his Dancing With the Stars victory. He still has several sponsors, but for nearly three years he's been living and training in Utah, adhering to the spartan lifestyle that preceded his 2002 and '06 success.

Much of his motivation for this Games comes from being able to compete in Vancouver, a few hours' drive from where he grew up in Seattle.

"That for me symbolizes that there's a reason why I'm still skating, there's a reason why I'm still healthy, and I still have the hunger and desire to prepare myself to be the best," he says.

Medals and special moments
In the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, a young Ohno pulled a relatively young Olympic sport (short track made its debut in the 1992 Games) into the spotlight by winning silver in the 1,000-meter race and a controversial gold in the 1,500.

A South Korean skater crossed the finish line first in the 1,500 but was disqualified for a blocking move on Ohno. The Korean Olympic Committee protested the disqualification, and Ohno had to be accompanied at the Games by Utah state troopers after death threats surfaced.

"I didn't go in (to the 2002 Games) thinking I was going to win," Ohno says, "but I was kind of naive, thinking, well if I just try harder, why wouldn't I be able to beat this guy? Very simple."

His mind-set going into the 2006 Games was not nearly as straightforward.
"I just had this mounting pressure that I was succumbing to, from the media and from my coaches and from certain expectations," he says.

The 1,500 was the first race on his 2006 schedule. An uncharacteristic mistake — a slip in the semifinal — cost him the chance to defend his title. At the time, he says, "It was heartbreaking because I felt like I failed."

His usual reaction to such a loss would be to withdraw, he says. He chose to read e-mails and write to the family, friends and fans who had filled his inbox with words of support.
"It's easy for people to support an athlete who always wins. But for them to be with you regardless, that meant a lot," he says.

Although he was bothered by a hamstring strain and torn ankle ligaments, he rebounded with a bronze in the 1,000.

He had the 500 and the 5,000 relay left. During his warm-up, he snuck outside the short-track venue to run around it. Seeing the arena from that vantage point made him smile.

"I was like, this is what I live for, why I'm in this sport, because of moments like these," he says.

The moments that followed were the kind that last a lifetime. Ohno drew the advantageous inside lane for the 500 final. Not known for explosive starts, he got such a quick jump it appeared to be a false start. Then he skated so flawlessly he had time to smile again before crossing the line.

He called it "the perfect race." Coupled with the 5,000 relay bronze he also won that day, it seemed the consummate cap to his Olympic career.

"I had friends say, 'Look, man, this is better than (Michael) Jordan, you can go out on top,' " Ohno says. "But it's not about that for me. It's not about the perfect ending. Life is not perfect. Sports are not perfect."

Especially not Ohno's sport. And now he has the chance to surpass an Olympic speedskating legend. Ohno could craft a story line with historic implications in a sport full of unpredictable twists.

"Heiden's the king," Jayner says. "But Apolo — in a sport that has more ups and downs and isn't just strictly you against the clock, where you can lose an edge and fall or have a bad call and have that opportunity for one medal taken away — to be at that level and have that many medals, it's awesome."

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Good luck to Apolo Ohno. He is very athletic and has probably the most experience racer against his competitors! I hope he wins gold in all of his events!

Go Ohno!

Go USA!!!!

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