COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – Dust off those fake soul patches. Apolo Anton Ohno is ready to slide into Olympic consciousness again, nearly four years after turning his crash-and-burn sport of short-track speedskating into one of the hottest tickets at the Winter Games.

The road to the 2006 Turin Olympics includes a stop at the U.S. Short Track National Championships beginning Monday in Marquette, Mich. Spots on the Olympic team will be up for grabs, with Ohno and close friend Shani Davis the two biggest names on the ice.

Ohno, winner of gold and silver medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, is the established star.

Now 23, he still wraps a bandanna around his dark flowing hair and has kept the wisp of hair under his bottom lip that triggered a fashion craze in Salt Lake and led fans to don fake hair patches on their chins.

“I haven’t seen my chin in many years,” he said, smiling.

Something else has stayed the same, too.

Ohno has maintained his regimen at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he shares a small dorm room with another athlete and lives a self-described “pretty boring” lifestyle.

“My social life is cut to a minimum,” he said.

It’s a far cry from the post-Olympic whirl he enjoyed in 2002, mingling with Hollywood celebrities and attending Oscar parties.

“There’s no way I would ever turn that stuff down,” he said.

As much fun as he had, Ohno soon remembered why he had trained so hard and so long in the first place. Eventually, he eschewed the limelight to return to training.

“I was so young, I didn’t want my career to end,” he said. “I try to live the same lifestyle as before 2002. Obviously, I’m older, but I wanted to keep some of the same values.”

Craving more privacy, he nearly left Colorado Springs in 2003. But as always, he first discussed the move with his hairstylist father, Yuki, who raised him alone since he was 1.

“We both thought that this is where my hunger kind of came from, living that really simple life,” Ohno said. “I see all kinds of world-class athletes walking through all the time. It just fires me up. Living at the training center keeps me grounded, keeps me focused.”

Ohno’s spartan room contains a desk, an alarm clock, extra heavy window shades to keep light out and his favorite item – a bed, where he crashes for eight to nine hours a night.

“Sleep for an athlete is crucial,” he said. “That’s the only time the body takes a full break and starts to regenerate. You can only train as hard as you can recover. If you aren’t recovering right, you’re not going to be ready for the next workout.”

Opponents should be dismayed to hear Ohno considers himself a better all-around skater than in 2002.

“Physically, I’m definitely stronger, I’m lighter, I’m leaner. I’ve learned a lot more about my body,” he said.

“In Salt Lake, I was really strong, but I was kind of mindless in terms of my training. I was just like an animal, it didn’t matter what it was, I’d just do it. Now, I’m taking a different approach, trying to do things in my program that make sense and become more efficient.”

His results since Salt Lake City have been impressive. He has finished atop the World Cup standings in three of the last five seasons.

In October, he overcame the flu, a sprained ankle and the wrath of South Korean fans to win the overall title at a World Cup meet in Seoul. Ohno needed extra security while in the country, a result of his disputed gold medal in Salt Lake.

A South Korean skater finished first in the 1,500 meters, but was disqualified for blocking Ohno, who was awarded gold. The South Koreans appealed the decision and threatened to boycott the closing ceremony.

Even now, Ohno, whose father is Japanese-American, downplays the ensuing fuss.

“I grew up around many Asian cultures, Korean being one of them,” he said. “A lot of my best friends were Korean growing up. I just didn’t understand – I’m just an athlete, number one. Number two, I’m not the one who got disqualified. I didn’t do anything. I’m the one who finished the race.

“Later on, I realized a lot of that (ire) was kind of built up by certain people and that was kind of directed at me.”

Short-track skaters are well aware of the randomness of their sport, knowing they could be disqualified or wiped out by another skater at any moment within the close confines of the rink.

“Sometimes the fastest, the best, the strongest guy doesn’t always win,” Ohno said. “Not because he fell down, maybe he just tactically got beat. That’s what I really enjoy.”

about the sport.”

At the World Cup in Seoul, Ohno was disqualified in the 500 and 1,500.

“You just finished what you feel like was an awesome race and then you get disqualified,” he said. “But more times than many, you know if you did something wrong before you finish the race.”

At last month’s World Cup in the Netherlands, Ohno medaled once in four races, hardly a dominating showing for the skater whose mere presence guarantees attention to his sport.

Ohno acknowledges being “a little nervous” about trying to top what he did in 2002.

His approach to Turin?

“Just give everything I have and be able to walk away chin up,” he said.

A hairy chin, that is.



On the Net:

www.apoloantonohno.com

AP-ES-12-10-05 1315EST


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