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Triathlons testing Ohno's resolve

7/1/2014
Apolo Ohno is hoping for a happy finish at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October. Nils Nilsen/IRONMA

Before his first triathlon, Apolo Ohno got some advice from his coach, eight-time Ironman world champion Paula Newby-Fraser:

Take your time. Pace yourself. Slow down.

"As soon as the gun went off, I sprinted as hard as I could," Ohno says. "Fifteen minutes into my swim I was dead."

Ohno can laugh now, recalling his rookie mistake at the Ironman 70.3 Boise in June.

Fortunately, he didn't drown. In fact, Ohno finished the 70.3-mile half-Ironman-distance race in a solid 4:59:27, good for 112th among the more than 1,400 entrants. But for Ohno, the tactical error is understandable.

The retired three-time Winter Olympian, 32, ranks among the best short-track speedskaters of all time. He won eight medals, including two golds, by going out fast and sprinting over distances from 500 to 1,500 meters. Those races took just 40 to 140 seconds. Now he's in events that last hours, not seconds. His triathlon debut was a wake-up call.

"It was tough, man, I'm not going to lie," he says.

Forging his way through a school of thrashing arms and legs in the open-water swim over a 1.2-mile course on Lucky Peak Reservoir was a new experience, he says, sort of like having somebody "punching you in the face while you're swimming."

Then, after the swim, he still had a 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.

"I went as hard as I possibly could on the bike, and I got off the bike thinking, 'OK, I've got to get through this run,'" he says. "That's not a good place to be. You should get off the bike saying, 'OK, let's attack this run.' But I couldn't even attack the last 10 miles of the bike. I was just trying to finish the thing."

Though his splits weren't bad -- 32:05 swim, 2:30:04 bike, 1:52:08 run -- Ohno now understands more of what a triathlon is all about, and what Newby-Fraser has been preaching. He realizes he must train harder and longer, concentrate more on his nutrition and focus on pace rather than speed. His goal is to complete the Ironman World Championship at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 11.

To get ready for that 140.6-miler in the heat and humidity of the Big Island, he'll do a sprint triathlon in Carlsbad, California, this month, another triathlon in Los Angeles and, possibly, one more half-Ironman, as well as some training in Hawaii. But mostly, Ohno will put in solitary hours in the pool, open water and on roads over the next three-plus months.

With better training and a new mindset -- while also shedding the "spare tires" he says he's gained in retirement -- he's confident he can improve. It's just going to take some effort to transition from a fast-twitch "super-ballistic explosive athlete" to one who can swim, bike and run more than 140 miles in less than 12 hours -- his goal in October.

"There's no magic formula," he says. "It's really just 'how hard can you train?'"

A new challenge

Ohno still looks like the guy who won all those medals at Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver. Back then he sped around icy tracks, hip-to-hip and elbow-to-elbow with a pack of pursuers, all while wearing weaponized skates and a cool, hipster soul patch. He calls those races, "40 seconds of pure mayhem and chaos."

Since walking away from skating after the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Ohno -- like most retired athletes -- has been looking for new challenges.

He's succeeded in business ventures, written a book, hosted a TV game show, worked as an NBC analyst for this year's Sochi Winter Games and run the New York City Marathon. And, even before retiring from short track, he went from novice to champion on 2007's "Dancing With the Stars."

So, taking on new challenges is ingrained.

"That's what life's about, man," he says. "You've got to change, you've got to adapt, you've got to find new things that spark your interest. Without competition, without challenge, you become complacent. You become lazy."

After running the New York City Marathon in 2011, Ohno -- who previously had done some work for the "Got Milk?" advertising campaign -- was approached to take part in a new campaign, "Got Chocolate Milk?"

"They said, 'What do you think about doing an Ironman?'" recalls Ohno, who ran 3:25:14 in New York.

The timing wasn't right, but the idea intrigued him, so it was put on hold for 2014. Last year, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward got involved with Team Chocolate Milk, trained with Newby-Fraser and completed the Ironman World Championship in 13 hours and 8 minutes, using its sponsor's exemption to participate at Kona.

Now Ohno is taking his shot at the Ironman in what's been dubbed "Mission Apolo." Ohno knew from the start it would be a challenge, but believed he was up for it despite being "a complete novice."

But first, there was the retirement body to consider. In his last race at Vancouver in 2010, he weighed 142 pounds. A week later, he weighed 155. Now he has 170 to 175 pounds spread over his 5-foot-8 frame. While he'd be considered in good shape by most, Ohno knows he's not where he needs to be.

"The old retirement body fat is coming off slowly, and I'm chiseling away to become and look like a triathlete," he says. He hopes to get down to 150-155 pounds by October.

"I think, obviously, my knees will be smiling if I can do that," he says.

"Athletic force of nature"

Newby-Fraser first met Ohno in February, before he went to Sochi, Russia. They began working together in early March. She's convinced he's not only going to complete the Ironman, but will shatter his 12-hour target.

"He's downplaying expectations," she says.

She believes Ohno, with stepped-up training and good conditions on race day, can break 11 hours. She calls his time at Boise "incredible" given his lack of experience and tactical mistakes.

"He blew himself up on both the swim and the bike, so it was a bit of survival during that run," she says. But she also thinks Ohno purposely disregarded her advice because he wanted to test himself.

"Honestly, I think he did it on purpose," she says. "We have this sort of interesting relationship, where I say something to him and he puts his hand up and says, 'I've got this. I've got it.' I go, 'OK, fine. You've got it. Go do it.'

"So I think he wanted to go slamming up against whatever that boundary was for him. He wanted to hit that wall and see where his limit was, and then I think he understood."

Since Boise, in fact, Ohno has raised the bar on his training. He put in three strong days with Newby-Fraser in the San Diego area -- including his first 100-mile bike ride -- then rebounded days later to run a personal-record 1:36:49 in Seattle's Rock 'n' Roll Half-Marathon. This time, he followed advice and shined, putting up negative splits.

Newby-Fraser would like to see Ohno do another Half-Ironman before Kona, as well as log one or two full weeks of intense training. If he can, she says his learning curve "would be very sharp." Working with him, she says, has been a pleasure, because she loves working with elite athletes.

"He's an athletic force of nature, honestly," she says. "He's incredible. He's built like a power athlete, but his engine is so big and his willingness to work, when he's training, his engagement is total during his workout."

Before and after training? Not so much.

"He can be very ADD once a workout is over or right before," she says, laughing.

"Nothing more grueling"

Ohno knows he was blessed to have a long and successful Olympic career, but more than four years removed from his last race he says he still misses short-track speedskating "every single day of my life."

"I miss the training, I miss the lifestyle, I miss my teammates, my coaches, the relentless pursuit of one common goal, which is to just be the best athlete I can be," he says.

Now he's found a new challenge that's different from anything he's done before. He looks at elite triathletes and truly realizes their physical and mental strength. He's excited to compete in the same race with them. It's an event he's watched from afar for years.

"There's nothing more grueling, challenging, than having the opportunity to compete in the most coveted endurance race in the world, which to me always was the Kona Ironman race in Hawaii," he says.

The question is, will this be a one-shot deal or will he continue to do triathlons after October? He has no idea.

"Look, this is still very new to me," he says, laughing. "I think we should be having this conversation after I do the Ironman at Kona."