VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP)—Apolo Anton Ohno held up all five of the gold-tipped fingers on his left hand. Tucking the American flag into his arm, he put up another finger on his right hand.
Make it six.
The American who made the soul patch fashionable—even the women were wearin’ em—pulled out a silver medal in the 1,500-meter final Saturday night when two South Koreans took each other out on the final turn, allowing Ohno to tie Bonnie Blair for most medals won by a U.S. Winter Olympian.
Korea still got the gold, which went to Lee Jung-su, out front and out of the trouble that gobbled up his teammates. But Ohno had no complaints about being the runner-up, especially when he swerved into the final turn in fourth, all hope of a medal appearing lost.
“Pretty intense,” Ohno said. “This is what this sport is all about.”
In short track, the most freakish of Olympic sports, it’s never over until everyone’s across the line—and, sometimes, even then it’s not over.
Disqualifications are common, and Ohno thought he might benefit from one after jostling with Sung Si-bak with a few laps to go, even grabbing at the South Korean to keep from falling.
Turns out, Ohno didn’t have to rely on the judges.
The Koreans took themselves out, costing themselves a sweep of the medal podium. Instead, the Americans wound up with both spots behind Lee—Ohno and 19-year-old bronze medalist J.R. Celski, skating in his first meet since a bloody, gruesome crash at the U.S. trials in September.
It’s the first time the Americans have put two skaters on the podium in an Olympic short track event.
“We thought Korea would get not only gold, but silver and bronze,” Lee said through a translator. “Short track is a game that is very unpredictable. Even though you’ve had a lot of practice, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Ohno, who now has two medals of each color, moved past Eric Heiden as the most decorated American male at the Winter Games and also claimed the mark for most short track medals since the wild-and-wooly sport joined the Olympic program in 1992.
Heiden, now the team doctor for U.S. Speedskating, told The Associated Press he was “glued to the television” while working in the training room at the Olympic Village.
“The thing that really sets him apart is he’s been doing this for a number of years,” Heiden said when reached on his cell phone. “We’ve learned to appreciate what dedication and hard work he’s had to put in. He’s a product of both those things.”
Ohno has three more events at the Vancouver Games to pass Blair—two individual races, plus the relay.
“I’ve come prepared, more than I’ve ever prepared for anything in my life,” Ohno said. “I’m in a very, very good place. Obviously, I know I have six medals now and I have no regrets about this entire Olympic Games experience. This is going to stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Ohno eliminated Canadian favorite Charles Hamelin in the semifinals with a daring inside move, drawing groans from many of the red-clad fans in the packed house at Pacific Coliseum. But there was still plenty of red-white-and-blue cheering for the 27-year-old American, who is practically a hometown favorite at these games.
Vancouver is just a three-hour drive north of suburban Seattle, where Ohno was born and raised by a single father, getting his start in skating with wheels under his feet rather than blades.
“I just feel so blessed to be here, healthy, competing,” he said. “It feels like home soil to me. We just have so much support in the crowd.”
Yuki Ohno cheered on his son and afterward took plenty of pictures with his cell phone.
“We didn’t come here to break the record. It’s kind of a bonus to him,” his dad said. “His confidence level is just way up there.”
When young Apolo watched short track make its Olympic debut 18 years ago, he decided that’s what he wanted to do. Clearly, the ice suited him, and he quickly learned to deal with the capriciousness of his newfound sport.
Sometimes, it works out just fine.
Ohno won his first medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games when a crash on the final turn took out every skater but one, Australia’s Steven Bradbury, who coasted across the line as perhaps the flukiest gold medalist ever. Ohno, his leg gashed by a skate blade, crawled across the line for a silver.
Talk about symmetry.
Ohno’s sixth medal was claimed under similar circumstances, though this time he didn’t have to spill any blood. The powerful South Koreans put three skaters in the final, and it looked as though they would sweep the medals when all of them shot ahead of Ohno on the final lap.
“Myself and everybody here thought it was finished and done with,” Heiden said. “Typical short track. It’s never over ‘til it’s over. It’s sort of deja vu with what happened in Salt Lake City with Bradbury.”
Ohno nearly crashed when he got tangled up with Sung, actually sticking out his right arm to fend off the South Korean—and perhaps keep himself up as he stumbled. Once Ohno regained his balance, it looked as though the Koreans were gone.
Then came the final turn.
Lee was out front and avoided trouble. But Lee Ho-suk cut in on Sung while trying to set up a last-second pass on Lee, and they both slid into the padded barrier, their medal hopes dashed in a heap. Ohno skated right on by, as did Celski.
“I skated a very aggressive race. I was battling with some of the best skaters in the world. It was a crazy race,” Ohno said. “I saw Ho-suk set up a pretty wild pass. It did not work out well for him.”
It worked out just fine for Ohno and Celski, who didn’t even know if he’d be able to compete at the Olympics after ripping open his left thigh with his own skate blade in that crash at the U.S. trials. He underwent surgery and resumed training as soon as possible, but still had to overcome plenty of lingering fears and doubts.
“I knew right after I got injured that if I kept my head down and I pushed through that whole rehab process and stayed determined, I’d get here tonight,” he said. “I’m thankful to be skating.”
As for the race, he said: “I can’t even explain what happened. It was just a blur to me. All I knew was there was a lot of movement in front of me, so I just stayed out of the mess. It’s short track, so stuff like that happens all the time.”
Heiden didn’t feel too bad about giving up his record. His five medals were nothing but gold, all won in a sweep of the long-track events at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
“I’ve never thought of it as a contest,” Heiden said. “I just look at Apolo as a great skater, and also a good friend, someone I’ve been able to spend some time with. I’m very happy with what he’s done.”
Heiden skated short track before it was an Olympic sport.
He gave it up after breaking his left leg in a crash when he was 14.
“That was it,” Heiden said, chuckling. “I told myself, ‘That’s enough of this stuff.”’