With bronze, short-track skater Apolo Anton Ohno passes Bonnie Blair to become top American Winter Olympian

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- American short-track skater Apolo Anton Ohno has plied his trade over three Olympic Games with a consistency that belies the chaos built into his sport. He has dashed past trouble. Slithered into good fortune. Ducked controversy. Piled up medals.

Saturday, he showed off a brand-new move: He leaped into history.

Ohno claimed his seventh Olympic medal -- a bronze -- surpassing speed skating legend Bonnie Blair for the most medals by a U.S. Winter Olympian. And he earned it, climbing from last to third place in a typically wild short track final. With less than a lap remaining in the 1,000-meter race, Ohno lingered in fifth place, but he accelerated past two Canadian brothers on the second-to-last turn and hung on behind Koreans Lee Jung-su and Lee Ho-suk.

"It feels amazing," Ohno said. "I wouldn't be human if I said it doesn't feel amazing. I don't look back at past medals I've won; I just remember all the struggles and sacrifices I've made to get to this point. As you saw in that race, this sport is very unpredictable."

Ohno, 27, has two more chances to collect medals at these Olympics. He competes in the 500 and men's 5,000 relay.

Blair won five gold medals and one bronze at the three Olympics between 1988 and 1994. Last weekend, Ohno surpassed Eric Heiden as the most decorated U.S. male Winter Olympian when he claimed a silver in the 1,500. Heiden won all five of his gold medals at the 1980 Winter Games.

As the skaters took the ice for the final, the crowd stood, roared and chanted "Go Canada!" Though Ohno received plenty of cheers when his name was announced, the most boisterous were reserved for Charles and Francois Hamelin, who managed fourth and fifth after leading the race early. Ohno, in third place after six laps, made a move with 2 1/2 laps remaining, moving into second behind Lee Jung-Su. At that point, Ohno smelled gold.

"I thought the race was mine," Ohno said.

Coming out of a turn, however, Ohno inexplicably tripped, losing his speed and falling to the back. Lee Jung-Su and Lee Ho-Suk -- who caused a fall that knocked him and South Korean Sung Si-Bak out of medal contention in last week's 1,500 -- took advantage.

"I went from second to last place in the blink of an eye," Ohno said. "I had to really, really fight to come back and win a bronze medal. For me, it's another historic night, simply because I raced my heart out today . . . I can't wait to watch the tape, to see how I came back."

When Ohno glided across the finish line as the Canadians faded, he raised his right arm and exhaled, looking more relieved than elated. Blair and Heiden, long-track speedskaters, collected more golds than Ohno, but they competed in a sport exempt from the crashes, bumps and high-speed passes that are commonplace in the short track version of the sport.

"I'm very happy for Apolo's accomplishment," Blair said in a statement issued by U.S. Speedskating. "We hope that more kids will see his accomplishments and want to try our great sport that has been so good to us and taught us so much about what it takes to be successful in life."

Ohno's two medals here follow the gold and two bronzes he won in Turin in 2006, and the gold and silver he won in Salt Lake City in 2002.

"Our sport is crazy," Ohno said. "I think to win one medal is an amazing accomplishment for any athlete . . . Not many athletes compete in back-to-back Olympic Games and medal. For me to be able to do it in three Games, I'm very happy. I'm very blessed."

Ohno also appeared to be in trouble in his semifinal, swinging wide in third place with one lap remaining. But he recovered with a tight inside turn, zipping past Charles Hamelin and Sung, for the lead. He edged both for first, and Hamelin grabbed the other position in the final.

Ohno has won medals about every way imaginable, and rarely smoothly. In Salt Lake City, he claimed his gold despite crossing the finish line in second place; a South Korean skater was disqualified. He got the '02 silver in a race in which three skaters collided and a last-place Australian slipped to first.

Four years later, he dominated the 500 meters, leading the race from start to finish, but in last weekend's race, Ohno claimed the silver only after two South Koreans collided on the last turn, flying out of contention.

American J.R. Celski, who won a bronze medal behind Ohno in the 1,500, couldn't get another Saturday after stumbling late in his semifinal. Celski was in second place when he tripped slightly, interrupting his rhythm and slowing him so much that Francois Hamelin actually tried to hold him up from behind so he wouldn't fall. Hamelin, however, lost his balance, careering into the boards, and Celski was disqualified.

"Sometimes calls get made," Celski said. "You just have to accept it. It's just the way it is. That's just short track."

Notes: In the women's 1,500 semifinals Saturday, four-time Olympic medal winner Wang Meng of China was disqualified for interfering with American Katherine Reutter, who ended up fourth in the final. Wang, who won the 500 gold medal earlier this week, won the bronze at this distance in the 2006 Winter Games, and her disqualification opened the door for China's Zhou Yang to claim the gold.

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