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Apolo Anton Ohno’s Storybook Journey Touches Down in Hawaii

FOR A YOUNG GENTLEMAN WHO SKATED ON THIN ICE (ALBEIT BETTER THAN ANYONE IN THE WORLD – EVER) Apolo Anton Ohno truly has his stuff together. Not only has he accomplished an impressive list of do-gooding since he garnered more Winter Olympic medals than anyone in history, he’s managed to stay the course since bringing home the gold. Moreover, it is his story – a hard-headed spirit from humble beginnings to sharing his personal journey with challenged youth countrywide – that makes him downright enviable.

Apolo Ohno walks with conviction. Upon introduction, one thing is rather clear: His star power is not undeserved. He’s understatedly suave; arriving at the Wailea resort breakfast table for our interview in a neatly pressed dress shirt, designer jeans, Omega watch (for whom he’s a brand ambassador) and a pair of Louis Vuitton slippers. And while this wouldn’t be out of the norm for anyone well-groomed in the ways of celebrity image-as-a-brand, the fact that, at precisely 9 a.m. on what he called “his first vacation in a long, long time,” he’s already completed a full three-hour workout.

“Wow, you’re still training,” I naively presume.

“No, I just try and get in what I can so I can eat what I want,” Ohno confides, immediately dismissing a plate of chocolate croissants in lieu of numerous helpings of fresh papaya.

Our first order of business is to fill in the time between his record-setting achievement in Vancouver and this breakfast. Following the Winter Games, Ohno was pitching around a competitive, sports-related network television show concept. With allies like Dick Ebersol (chairman of NBC Universal Sports), it isn’t a matter of “how” as much as “when and where” the show will air. With Ohno at the helm, he aims to produce a “Regis and Kelly-type format with young athletes, real time issues … not just fluff.”

Constantly approached by charitable organizations, one such outfit – a group called The Century Council – asked if he would consider promoting its “Ask, Listen, Learn” program, which entailed talking to everyday kids about staying healthy and active, saying no to drugs and underage drinking, leading a positive life.

“For me, middle school was such a tender age where you’re really teetering on the fence. You can make a lot of good decisions, a lot of bad decisions,” Ohno shares, noting that his father, Yuki, paired with his love of sport, helped guide him through his early teens. “Without the right guidance, kids tend to lose themselves regardless of what kind of parenting is going on.”

After speaking at a few middle schools, the response – nationally – was overwhelming. His message of “It’s not how you start the race, it’s how you finish” clicked in young kids’ minds, from Philadephia to New York and California.

“The phones began ringing off the hook. So we looked at how we could make a bigger impact,” Ohno says, promptly becoming the affiliate’s main spokesman, hitting the “campaign” trail in Washington, lobbying to senators and congressmen. He also visited multiple schools en route.

Naturally, I inquired as to whether the muck of Washington’s oft-stalled politicking dismayed him from continuing his attempt to make a difference. His response was astoundingly mature.

“You can’t change a culture, and I’m not trying to,” Ohno says. “My goal is to bring more attention to the things I’m focused on. That’s all I can really control.”

When asked if there was a turning point – a moment when he knew he was on the right path – Ohno is quick to deliver.

“I was at John Smith School on the South Side of Chicago. There used to be four middle schools in the area; three of them completely shut down. Totally failed. At the one remaining, I went and spoke. I met with the principal there, and he told me a story. He said he brought the kids outside and showed them the Chicago skyline, which is very beautiful. He asked them, ‘What do you see here?’ And they said, ‘A liquor store,’ ‘A crack house over there.’ They couldn’t see past a couple of blocks.

“He tries to teach them to look beyond where you’re at – as that’s where you should aim. When I spoke a few hours later to these same kids, it’s when I realized this was the right thing for me.”

This “right thing” promptly led Ohno to the White House, where he spoke with the Obamas – specifically the first lady, and her “Let’s Move” campaign – which shares core values with his.

“We’re trying to make plans to work together,” Ohno says, noting that problems aren’t relegated only to urban areas.

“It’s not to say the school off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills that I spoke at doesn’t have their own issues,” he adds.

Success with Words

Shortly before our interview, Ohno signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster, which will release his second literary effort this month. Less of a biography than a memoir, according to Ohno, the inspirational story will showcase the life lessons he’s learned through the pursuit of sport. In his thoughtful, all-encompassing manner, he divulges that the entire message will be relatable to every reader.

Before our day would end, we’d run in to Alan Abraham-son, the writer who has shadowed Ohno for the last year and is assigned the task of working with the athlete on the book. Abrahamson also inked Michael Phelps’ biography.

“I know Phelps. What an incredible athlete — and a freak of nature,” Ohno says, playfully. “He could lay out there in the ocean and you’d think he was a dolphin. No kidding.”

Currently based in Los Angeles, Ohno admits the Hollywood bug is rubbing off, if just a tad.

“I’m working with an acting coach, as I do plan on doing more hosting. There are a lot of ideas out there right now,” Ohno confides.

The Sport of Travel

Another venture Ohno is passionate about is a nutritional supplement he launched called “8 Zone,” which was the accumulation of research done hand-in-hand with his own physicians, biochemists and trainers over the last decade. Translating the intense nutritional regimen needed to be a world-class athlete has become a challenge Ohno is intent on figuring out how to pass along to health-conscious consumers.

“It’s fun; it led to some great travel, to China and Japan. I’m the owner, founder and spokesperson for 8 Zone, and it’s all made in the U.S. but it’s led to working with some really advanced people in the medical health industries,” Ohno says.

A side benefit, he touts, is finally being able to travel – for leisure – something he formerly did solely for sport, or in fantasy, through the pages of a magazine.

“First, let me say your magazine is awesome. And I’m a big magazine guy,” he says. “At one point, when I was living in Colorado at the Olympic training center, my life was totally in this little bubble. Yet, I had so much more interest than just the sport, but you don’t have time for any of it. So I read. At the time I had subscriptions to 27 magazines. I had a stack overhead. And I loved it.”

Naturally, we delved in to the subject of his favorite destinations, and what tops his wish list.

“I love travel. I love new people and experiences, different cultures. If I had a magic wand, I’d gather a bunch of friends and family, and just travel around the world. A month here, a month there. There’s so many cool ethnicities, history- plus I’m a big food guy.”

Admittedly, Ohno says food was the only way he formerly had the opportunity to experience new cultures. Now, having retired from Olympic skating, he’s finally seeing firsthand the fare of Japan, China, Italy, Germany and so on.

“Now the first thing I do is get a group of friends to meet me at a good restaurant. We talk about food, get immersed … you know, every culture wants to show you what they eat. It’s the best way to learn,” says Ohno, who formerly ate and cooked for fuel, not taste. “I was like a machine. Make it, eat it, done. It was hard, because I love food! You should see my father eat. He could out-eat most people at this resort. It’s unreal. I’ll ask him why he eats so much, and he’ll say ‘I don’t know when the next time I’m going to eat is!’ I guess I drove him to it.”

Ohno’s recent highlights include trips to Tokura, Japan, (near Nagano) to see his grandmother. He cites Japan as a very special place, where he’s enjoyed the hot springs near Atami and Ryokan, the food near Nagano (“The best trout I ever had was there,” says Ohno), his grandmother’s soba noodles and occasionally picking up a piece to add to his seemingly single guilty pleasure: fine watches.

“It’s bad. I love the movement, the technical aspects. It’s all very fun,” says Ohno.

Yet without seeming like he was pandering to the audience, he says he relishes his time in Hawaii.

“Hawaii is awesome. A lot of my friends in Washington growing up had ties here. Maybe that’s why I always felt like I was Hawaiian in another life. I don’t know why. But I was throwing the shaka sign before I even knew what it was,” Ohno laughs.

Ohno’s father, who had been sitting idly, felt inclined to chime in.

“Back at the Salt Lake City games in 2002, people kept printing that Apolo was Hawaiian, probably because he’s half-half (his father is Japanese, mother is Caucasian-American),” Yuki Ohno says.

“You hear people utilize the word ‘paradise,’ and you’re like, ‘whatever.’ But until you come here and really see it … it really is paradise! There’s just no other word to describe it. And it’s not like it’s a new place to go; it’s developed. And it’s still that beautiful. That, and there’s just that spirit of the people here. It’s really amazing,” Apolo adds.

As our conversation turns to his plans to return to the Aloha State, Ohno shares that he has friends who live in West Maui, with whom he enjoys visiting.

“They don’t really do much of anything, which is a totally foreign concept to me. It’s fun!” he adds.

Ohno also adds that the allure of Oahu and its diversity is attractive. In fact, upon arrival he was met by a gaggle of youths sporting his signature blue bandanna and facial hair, with whom he posed for many a picture. The youths had a purpose: They were trying to gain attention for their cause – bringing surfing to the Olympic Summer Games.

Ohno paused to relish the authenticity of the messages the Hawaii kids brought to him on the tarmac that day.

“Such great spirits,” he concludes, flashing that gold medal smile.