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From In-Lines to Ice Skates
So what's the childhood of an Olympic speed skater like? Well, it's probably a little different for everyone. Usually skaters grow up surrounded by their sport. Think of American speed skaters and you think of places like Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Minnesota places where lakes and rivers can freeze for six months out of the year.
One of the last places you'd think a champion speed skater would grow up would be Seattle. It's rainy, not too cold, and right by the ocean. There's not much snow and hardly ever any ice. Seattle just isn't a place where people spend a lot of time skating. All the same, this mild, wet city by the sea is the hometown of the most famous speed skater in the U.S.: a nineteen-year-old kid with an earring and long hair, named Apolo Ohno.
How did Seattle become home to the 2002 Olympics' most exciting speed skater?
Apolo Anton Ohno was born in Seattle on May 22, 1982. Back then no one was counting on an Olympic future for this kid. Things were pretty tough on him right off the bat. His mother, Jerrie Lee, abandoned him in 1983 before he was even one year old. After she took off, he never heard from her again.
Apolo's father, Yuki Ohno, was left to raise Apolo as a single dad. It wasn't easy, but he managed as well as he could. Mr. Ohno, was a hairstylist in Seattle and worked like crazy to keep up with the bills. He owned his own hair salon called Yuki's Diffusions, which took up a lot of his time. And he sometimes took on extra jobs at other salons just to make ends meet. He often worked twelve-hour days. juggling his time before his son wasborn had been hard enough. After Apolo arrived and his wife left, things got even crazier.
"It was a turning point in my fife," Mr. Ohno, says, describing the early years, after his wife left. "I was the type of hairdresser that goes to parties and all those shows wearing very flamboyant European label suits from head to toe. Everything changed. At the beginning I felt I had no confidence. I thought, I'm the only male caring for a one-year-old baby, facing all the other mothers and day care. I was very depressed. But you just develop. You build up confidence."
Another thing that made things difficult was Apolo's personality. No one had any idea that Apolo would be skating in the Olympics. But as soon as he could walk, Apolo definitely demonstrated that he had the soul of an athlete and a competitor. He would jump the fence at day care, climb to the top of the jungle gym and refuse to come down, and even swallow dirt and rocks on dares. Basically, he had a rambunctious and uncontrollable kind of energy the kind of energy that makes Olympic champions but that also makes for hard-to-manage kids. Chasing after Apolo was a full-time job, and it was almost impossible for Mr. Ohno just to make dinner or take Apolo shopping at the grocery store. It was exhausting and often sent Mr. Ohno into fits of panic and worry.
But even when Apolo was young, his wild spirit was no mystery to Mr. Ohno. He knew exactly where it came from. He'd been something of a rebel himself.
Mr. Ohno, was born in Japan and was the son of a vice-president of a Japanese university. At eighteen, Mr. Ohno, decided to leave his academic family and his unexciting life in Japan to try his luck in the U.S. He moved to Seattle, where he enrolled at Seattle City College. He wanted to be an accountant. But after a few courses in accounting, he decided that wasn't for him either-too many numbers, not enough socializing. Instead, he decided to check out another career.
Mr. Ohno studied hairstyling and traveled all over the world to learn his craft. He went to London to study at the famous Vidal Sassoon salon and spent time in New York City practicing his trade. He partied with artists, hung around with players in the fashion industry, and cut the hair of famous models. Not a bad fife. It was actually kind of a wild life. It made sense that his son was a little wild, too.
Eventually Mr. Ohno made his way back to Seattle. There he opened his salon, Yuki's Diffusions. It was 1980 and he was putting down some roots. But while the traveling was slowing down, the fun was not.
Mr. Ohno continued to live a wild life, staying out late, partying with his friends, and occasionally flying off to London to cut a model's hair. Then he met Apolo's mother, Jerrie, and Mr. Ohno's life looked like it was finally going to settle down.
Unfortunately, a peaceful family life was not in the cards. Apolo was born and Jerrie left. Mr. Ohno had gone from rebellious partier to family man to single dad, all in a few short years. Things definitely changed, but probably not the way Mr. Ohno had imagined they would.
But he didn't shy away from his responsibilities. He was thirty-seven, a hard worker, and he did everything he could for his son. He describes himself as half mom and half dad. Every Mother's Day Mr. Ohno would ask Apolo's teacher to convince Apolo to make him a card.
"I didn't want him to feel left out," Mr. Ohno says.
Apolo also got to hang out with other adults who took an interest in him. Whenever he'd get a break from school, he'd spend time at his dad's salon, sitting in the back and chatting with the customers. Mr. Ohno's regular clients still talk about their time with Apolo especially these days, since almost everyone in Seattle is talking about the speed skating phenomenon...
Going for the Gold: Apolo Anton Ohno. Copyright © by Thomas Lang. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.