Olympic star Apolo Ohno shares lessons for success at Contact event

Decorated American athlete reflects on bumpy but successful career and life after speed skating


Ohno shared his story in Lee Chapel on Tuesday. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger, ‘18

Maddie Haight

Apolo Anton Ohno, a retired American short track speed skater and eight-time Olympic medalist, spoke to a Lee Chapel audience Tuesday evening about his experience as an Olympic athlete and the personal values he believes were shaped more by his failures than his triumphs.

Contact Committee sponsored the event along with the W&L Athletic Department, Generals Activities Board (GAB), Multicultural Student Association (MSA), and the Pan-Asian Association for Cultural Exchange (PAACE.)

Ohno also addressed student athletes earlier in the day in Doremus Gym about what it takes to be a high-performing and well-rounded athlete.

“In choosing our Spring Term speaker we wanted someone who had strong name recognition, would appeal to a broad cross-section of the student body, and was different from the other speakers we’ve brought most recently,” said Andrew Blocker, ‘17, who is the head of the Contact Committee. “The Contact Committee felt strongly that we needed a highly respected athlete, since so many W&L students are involved in varsity athletics. Apolo Ohno was a logical choice.”

Despite being the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time, Ohno said that his success was far from predetermined. In his Lee Chapel speech, he shared the story of how he ended up in the sport of speed skating.

He was a self-described “energizer bunny” as a child, born in the rainy city of Seattle, Wash. He was raised primarily by a single father who had signed him up for nearly every sport, with speed skating being one of the many sports he had chosen.

His father was approached by a coach for the Olympic training program in Lake Placid, N.Y., but Ohno did not jump at the opportunity. In fact, upon first being sent to the training center by his father, he ran away from the airport and secretly stayed with friends for several weeks. Not until Ohno’s father received a confused phone call from the coach in Lake Placid was his son personally accompanied him to Lake Placid, where Ohno began to hone in his skills for the sport.

Much to the crowd’s amusement, Ohno punctuated his story with anecdotes of mischief at Lake Placid, such as stopping to get pizza in the middle of training runs. However, he also highlighted the challenges that many young or student athletes face in committing to a serious sport.

After training in Lake Placid, in 1997 at the age of 14 Ohno became the youngest U.S. national champion and was considered to be the foremost short track speed skater in the United States. But when he returned to the World Cup the next year, he was drastically out of shape and finished dead last.

Despite his previous accomplishment, he said that he did not have the depth of character that he ultimately found later in his career thanks to his father’s foresight and mentorship. He said that his father required him to be accountable to those whom had seen him as a prodigy and whom he had subsequently disappointed. Ohno identified his father’s intervention as the major turning point in his career when he found the drive and full dedication to the sport which helped him to win the 1999 World Junior Championships.

Shortly thereafter, the 2002 Winter Olympic games were held on American soil. Ohno mentioned that the sense of reeling among Americans following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks instilled in him a heightened sense of national pride and responsibility. At the Olympics, he said, Americans were given a forum to unite and cheer for one team, and showcase the best of a great nation.

Ohno’s career continued, and in 2007 he was asked to participate in Dancing With the Stars. He and his dancing partner, Julianne Hough, won the championship during the fourth season of the popular American dancing competition broadcast.

Ohno concluded his speech by underscoring the importance of sports in sustaining a strong value system, a message he also stressed in his earlier speech to Washington and Lee’s student athletes.

Caroline Hutchinson, ’16, attended the event as a member of the women’s lacrosse team, which was in the process of preparing for Saturday’s ODAC championship.

“Ohno’s talk was really inspiring leading into our conference tournament this weekend,” she said. “He spoke a lot about commitment and confidence and what it takes to be an athlete at that level.”

Other students enjoyed Ohno’s presence as well.

“I thought he gave a good testament as to why mental preparation and mental toughness is vital to competing at the highest level, in any sport,” Alex Pollera, ’18, said. “Plus he had a good sense of humor, which kept me interested.”