- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

TURIN, Italy — When you’ve already got a cool name like Apolo Anton Ohno, a cool look and you’ve just won perhaps the biggest race of your life, who needs a nickname?

An interested observer provided one, anyway.

“He came through when he needed to come through,” the long track 1,000-meter gold medalist Shani Davis said last night after Ohno won gold in the 500 meters. “He always delivers. I’m gonna start calling him the Mailman.”

That’s what former NBA star Karl Malone was called, but that Mailman never won a championship. Ohno now has two Winter Olympics gold medals — the 1,500 meters in 2002, a controversial victory, and now the 500, which wasn’t controversial. Sort of.

In the semifinal, Ohno took second place after China’s Li Jiajun was disqualified. But it appeared, although it was not conclusive, that Li finished second and Ohno third, which would have kept him from advancing.

Then in the final, after Ohno committed a false start, which followed a false start by two other skaters, he broke extraordinarily fast from the line. Too fast, perhaps. Replays showed Ohno moving and leaning forward at the gun. Was he over the line?

Not according to the judges. Had it been called, Ohno would have been disqualified. Instead, the quick break, together with his inside starting position, was all he needed. He led wire-to-wire.

“So much emotion, so much passion, everything was moving through my body,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Later, with a quick burst at the end, Ohno helped the United States win a bronze medal in the 5,000-meter relay. Last week, he won bronze in the 1,500 meters.

But about that start. …

“I thought I timed the start just perfect,” he said. “The starter had been pretty quick all day. That’s why there were so many false starts.”

Otherwise, he said: “I don’t remember anything of the race. I was just skating in the moment. All I remember is crossing the line and pushing with every ounce of energy that I had.”

Opinions from Ohno’s competition were mixed.

“I guess everyone expected the start to be really fast,” silver medalist Francois Louis-Tremblay of Canada said. “I had to deal with it. Maybe he did [false start]. I have to watch the replay. But I’m not gonna complain. He raced really well.”

Ohno’s South Korean rival, Hyun-Soo Ahn, who took the bronze medal, said through a translator that he was so tense that he paid no attention to anyone else at the starting line.

“I saw how Ohno started, and I thought I should leave that to the referees,” he said after watching a replay of the race. “That was not my place to go.”

It also wasn’t Ahn’s place to win four gold medals in these Olympics. Three would have to do, plus the bronze. He later was part of South Korea’s gold medal effort in the relay.

In Salt Lake City in 2002, Ohno beat Ahn’s teammate, Kim Dong-Sung, in the 1,500 meters. As the two were battling for the finish line, Ohno threw up his hands, and the judges disqualified Kim, who finished first. The South Koreans lost a protest, then threatened to boycott the closing ceremony.

Ohno received several death threats, and the U.S. Olympic Committee was inundated with nasty e-mails from angry South Koreans. When Ahn beat Ohno here in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters, many viewed it as avenging Kim’s defeat.

Ohno downplayed his rivalry with Ahn and said he was treated well in South Korea during a World Cup competition there last year.

The 500 is not Ohno’s nor Ahn’s best race. But Ahn and teammate Lee Ho-Suk were favored. If there was any redemption, it belonged to Ohno.

“To win a race like that, start to finish, is very special to me,” he said.

Before yesterday’s race, Ohno was being mentioned in the same breath as Bode Miller, Michelle Kwan and other failed veterans from the 2002 Games. Ohno had his bronze from the 1,000 meters, but that was all. He failed to qualify for the finals in the 1,500.

But winning a gold medal wasn’t the only thing that set him apart from the likes of the all-talk, no-action Miller. After the race Ohno, sporting his trademark bandana and soul patch, had the quiet, serene, almost mystical air of a Zen master.

Reminded that Ohno graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002 but was relatively ignored this time around, he said: “I’m in no battle to be on the front of anything. This sport is what I love. And if I happen to make the cover of a magazine, that’s a bonus.

“I’m here because I train hard every day,” Ohno added. “And I sacrifice everything. I have an unbelievable team that helps me. The expectations were the same before Salt Lake as they were this time. The pressures were a little bit different, defending some medals. Obviously, expectations were high. But at no point did I ever not think I had the ability to make that podium.”

All Olympic athletes push themselves. Ohno has perhaps pushed himself a bit more. Among his sacrifices was living for eight years in a dorm in the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“I’m 23 years old,” he said. “I’d like to have a social life. That’s pretty much out the window when it comes to an Olympic year. A lot of things you give up. But this is the reason why. Everything goes into this. Days like this, you hope they last an eternity.”

Ohno’s career won’t last that long. In fact, he has hinted at retirement.

“I have to figure out what my next journey’s gonna be,” he said. “All these moments in my career, in my life, definitely made things very special, but I don’t know. I’m just enjoying the moment right now.”

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