It took champion skater Apolo Ohno years to earn his eight Olympic medals, but now he’s granting contestants 60 seconds to win their awards. As host of GSN’s “Minute to Win It” competition, Ohno knows what it feels like to teeter on the brink of failure.
But, for him, that precipice made all the difference.
The champion short track speed skater remembers when all that glittered was not gold or even bronze. “When I was 14 years old I was No. 1 in the U.S. When I was 15 years old I got last place in the same competition during the trials. It was very close to me either hanging up my skates and pursuing something different or continuing on this course. That was a turning point for me,” says Ohno, seated at a sunlit table in a hotel café here.
“It was a lack of experience and lack of willingness to succeed,” he volunteers. “The skills came to me very easily, so it didn’t require me to focus too much. So I think sometimes when things come too easily without effort — I didn’t really pay my dues. So when I got last place at the Olympic trials and didn’t make the team, that’s when I began to pay my dues. And I didn’t like that feeling.”
Ohno’s parents split when he was a baby, and he was raised by his father, who always urged him to excel. “My dad saw it as an opportunity to learn a life lesson. He said, ‘Whatever you do in life you should really pursue it 100 percent rather than just go through the motions.’ I realized if I’m going to try something, I’m going to REALLY try to do it. I think it was my father; he was upset that I went through the whole season without really applying myself. And look at the end result. I could’ve, I should’ve, I would’ve . . . I had those doubts. I could’ve made the team. I should’ve trained harder. I would’ve trained harder — those ifs, ands and buts, those are the things that can haunt you for the rest of your life in any career,” says Ohno, who sports sideburns, a soul patch below his lip, and a wispy goatee.
“If you leave no stone unturned in your preparation and still don’t succeed, at least you can say, ‘You know what? I couldn’t do any more.’ That’s the most gratifying thing in the world regardless of win, lose or draw. “
Ohno has been competing since he was a toddler. “I was a swimmer. I was a skater. I’ve always been competitive in general. It’s hard to explain why.”
His dad encouraged him to channel his drive. “I had a ton of energy, ran around like crazy — more than a handful for my dad. I was crazy. Dad barely handled it. I was never diagnosed ADHD or anything like that, but I’m pretty sure I had it when I was younger. It’s the only thing that would explain me getting into trouble all the time. Kids who have it also have the ability to focus at a very high level if they’re able to concentrate their level of focus. So I just needed something to divert my attentions to, and that was sports.”
His first sport was swimming. “I started very young, but I progressed very quickly. It teaches you structure, discipline, teamwork, how to win, how to lose and hard work. And it takes a lot of energy to play sports.”
Even though he no longer competes in athletics, he has not lost his ambition or his confidence. He appeared twice on “Dancing With the Stars,” winning the first time and returning for the “All-Stars” show. He finagled a stint in a movie and has appeared on various TV shows. “I wanted to go back on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ I did it. One of my favorite shows is ‘Hawaii Five-0.’ I went on, guest starred. I wanted to be in a film, did ‘Tasmanian Devils’ in Vancouver. Wanted to host a show, boom, did it.”
Ohno, 31, also either owns, directs or has founded six companies in the field of textiles, food, clothes and processing, which involves constant international travel.
“In school I studied international business and marketing so I’ve always been attracted to business. My life has always been compartmentalized into different aspects,” he says.
“I have my speed skating Olympic pursuits, I have my personal life and have my business life and have my entertainment-TV-Hollywood — whatever have you — always compartmentalizing every aspect of my life.”
He acknowledges that someday he’d like to include a family in that compartment. “I think that deep down, everybody wants some type of love.”
(one hour) airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on GSN.