WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Apolo Ohno’s decision to set his sights on the Vancouver Winter Olympics and forego, at least for now, the glitter of Hollywood was not an easy one to make.
“I battled with that choice, no doubt,” the short track speedskating overall world champion said.
Ohno’s good looks, charisma and stage presence were in full view in Dancing with the Stars, a television show where celebrities compete in a weekly showdown of salsa and tango.
He went toe-to-toe against, among others, ‘N Sync band member Joey Fatone, supermodel Paulina Porizkova and Paul McCartney’s former wife Heather Mills, winning the crown and broadening his fame well beyond the skating rink.
Hollywood, however, could not lure Ohno away from next year’s Vancouver Games despite the temptation of less stress, more money, and a glitzy, limousine lifestyle.
“I’ve gotten this far in my life having been blessed with these gifts to be able to speedskate,” the affable 26-year-old American told Reuters in a recent telephone interview.
”My body is still healthy. I‘m still young enough. If I go into directing, producing, acting -- whatever it is in the entertainment world -- those opportunities will be there when I‘m done skating.
“Maybe they won’t be there to the degree as some would like. But at this point in my life I want to focus on things that are important to me. I won’t be skating five or 10 years from now.”
Few things are as important right now than overtaking former speedskater Bonnie Blair as America’s most decorated Winter Olympian with five golds and one bronze before her retirement in 1995.
Ohno, who won two medals, one of them gold, in Salt Lake City in 2002 and three, including another gold, in Turin in 2006, needs to reach the podium twice in Vancouver to set the new American standard.
“I‘m going to try to get to the podium every chance I can,” he said. “Obviously, if I can stand on the top of the podium, better yet. But if I can walk away from each race and say that that was my best, even if I don’t win, I’ll still be happy.”
That is quite heady talk from someone who hung out with petty criminals as a youth outside Seattle. Ohno was raised by his Japanese-born father Yuki after his parents’ marriage fell apart.
”I was like anyone else that the age, growing up near a city with a ton of energy,“ he said. ”The only reason why I was able to keep myself out of trouble was because of sports.
“And my father pushed me towards that. I was very lucky.”
Speedskating’s rigorous training also helped change his body. The double Olympic gold medallist was not always the lithe 5-foot-8 (1.73 m), 165-pound (74.8 kg) athlete he is today.
“I was a thick kid. Strong but very thick,” he said with a laugh. “My friends gave me a lot of nicknames growing up. Chunkie was one of them.”
Ohno was slow to dedicate himself to speedskating but once he did he became a natural for one of the Winter Games’ most popular sports.
But he will be very selective on the speedskating circuit in 2009, feeling like a marked man.
Ohno explained: ”Prior to 2006 I had a lot of very good finishes, in the top two or three consistently. But what I noticed was that a lot of countries were studying me and my technique.
“By the time I got to the Games, they had done a lot of research. So this year, we’re going to play it low-key, do well when I need to. But mostly try out new strategies.”
Ohno is today’s poster boy for speedskating, someone younger competitors can emulate.
”This sport has allowed me to become a role model without even knowing it,“ said Ohno, who has been on the national team for 13 years. ”To me, that’s amazing because I really didn’t have that within the sport growing up.
“I had to look to others outside the sport, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Lance Armstrong.”
While Ohno’s competitors keep a close eye on him any chance they get, the American public usually sees him only once every four years. That all changed with Dancing with the Stars which Ohno won in 2007 along with professional partner Julianne Hough.
“The show was so wildly popular it was insane,” said Ohno. “Who would have known? It was incredible. My recognizability went through the roof. Even now. It’s actually funny.”
Despite Hollywood knocking at his door, Ohno is not dismissing a shot at the 2014 Games in Sochi in Russia.
”At this point, I‘m taking it day-by-day, race-by-race, year-by-year,“ he said. ”My first focus is Vancouver. It’s going to be spectacular and close to my home.
“If I go to Sochi, I’ll be 31. Who knows? They say 30 is the new 20, right?”
Editing by Dave Thompson