Speed skater Apolo Ohno

Olympic speed skating champion talks about his new book, describes what it was like growing up the son of a Japanese immigrant and addresses what’s next in his skating career.

Within two years of learning his sport, Apolo Ohno was the best short-track skater in the U.S. He's competed in three consecutive Winter Olympics and won eight medals, making him the world's most highly-decorated Winter Games athlete and the face of the sport in the U.S. After this year's Games, Ohno created a foundation, became a motivational speaker and started a nutritional supplement business. In the inspirational memoir, Zero Regrets, he chronicles his career and his relationship with the single father—an immigrant from Japan—who raised him.



Tavis: Following his two speed-skating medals at this year’s Winter Olympics, Apolo Ohno has now won more medals than any Winter Olympic athlete in all of U.S. history. He is the son of a Japanese immigrant and shares his unique American story in the pages of his new book, “Zero Regrets: Be Greater than Yesterday.” Apolo, good to have you on the program.
Apolo Ohno: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Zero regrets, for real?
Ohno: Do I have zero regrets?
Tavis: Yeah, zero regrets?
Ohno: When I chose the title of the book it wasn’t saying that I had zero regrets. More importantly it was saying that I had a passionate pursuit of trying to reach zero regrets, obviously trying to be greater than I was yesterday. As seemingly impossible as it may seem of having zero regrets, when I look at my life now and all the mistakes I’ve made, all the bad decisions I’ve made, all the things I could have done differently or done more in, I don’t think I would have changed anything.
Every single experience, every single thing that’s happened in my life, struggle, obstacle, trials and tribulations, I think they’ve all molded me to become the character and the person who I am today. So when I chose the title I wanted to make a statement in saying look, I think we should all be pursuing something of zero regrets, and how do we become greater than we were yesterday?
That’s the true message of the book, is inspirational in nature, it’s motivational and I want to showcase a lot of my own life stories, life lessons and most importantly my own struggles and my own insecurities in life and how I dealt with those things, and then turn them into opportunities to make myself a stronger person.
Because I think in general, people look at all Olympic athletes, look at all superstar athletes, and they say, “Okay, this guy doesn’t have any insecurities.” They’re almost like these icons who – I don’t know how to say it, but like they can’t make mistakes. But the reality is, and I’ll tell you this firsthand, a lot of great athletes have a lot of insecurities, and they have a really hard time dealing with a lot of so-called losing or however you want to classify it.
But I think it’s those champions and how they deal with some of those insecurities, that’s what makes them different and separates them from the pack.
Tavis: Speaking of having a hard time dealing with losing, the word is that when you were approached about doing “Dancing with the Stars” you told your agent, “Okay, I will do this, but I have to win.”
Ohno: Yeah.
Tavis: “I have to win, I have to win,” as if your agent somehow could fiat you into the winner’s circle.
Ohno: Exactly.
Tavis: It doesn’t quite work that way.
Ohno: And that’s what he told me. He goes, “Well, that’s great, Apolo, but I don’t have control over that.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Ohno: Literally, that was the deal.
Tavis: So winning for you really was important. It wasn’t just a fun exercise for you, you had to win.
Ohno: It’s always important. Make no mistake about it, that’s what fuels I think all of us, is to become a champion, become all we can be, and because look, we want to reach that podium. We want to be able to say let’s stand on top of the podium. That’s the goal of why I wanted to become an Olympic athlete. That’s not the only goal, however. That is one of the driving forces. That’s what makes me a competitor by nature.
When there’s somebody racing side-by-side, when somebody’s right next to me and they’re pushing and we’re both tired, we’re both fatigued, I want to be able to beat them mentally. But it goes so much more beyond that. I think it goes so much more into appreciating what the Olympic Games are all about, appreciating every single day, every single step of the journey.
I think so many times in our society we focus so much on just the end result when when we finally reach that point we realize that was never the true goal. That was never really what it was all about.
And we look back on the past four years of training, the past eight years of training, and we say, “Wow, that’s what was important to me. Those are the life lessons that I learned.”
Tavis: How much of winning is mental? Anyone who’s had a personal trainer has had your trainer say to you, “Come on, you can do this, you can do this, you can do this.” So it gets to –
Ohno: It’s in your head; it’s in your head, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: It’s in your head; it’s in your head, exactly. So how much of it for you really is mental?
Ohno: Well for me, a big part of performing was mental. I would lay at night in my bed and I would either defeat myself or prepare myself properly for the next day. When you get to a big event, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in school, whether it’s in sports, in life in general, you have to realize there’s so much competition out there.
When you reach that competing point, when you reach that time when the gun is about to go off, everyone’s level is pretty much the same. The one thing that’s going to separate you from everybody else is how you deal with those pressures, how you stay relaxed.
Tavis: Because everybody’s prepared for this at this point.
Ohno: Once an every four year event, everybody’s trying hard. You think the next guy didn’t sacrifice every single day? (Laughter) You’re kidding me. This is it, man. The top 1 percent of every single country is competing at these games on one day, and there’s only three spots on that podium. So how do you differentiate yourself? I think it comes from here. I think it comes from here.
Tavis: How much of – and I’m not na├»ve in asking this; it’s all throughout the book, obviously – but how much of your story has to do uniquely with the fact that you are the son of a Japanese immigrant?
Ohno: Well, I think – that’s funny you say that, because my father, although coming to the United States at 18 years old, becoming Americanized, really embracing the American culture, there’s still a large part of who he is is Japanese.
He can’t shake that. The older he gets now the more and more it’s coming out, as much as he probably tried to hide that and try to fit in as much as he could. The older I get, the more and more I notice I’m like my father. It’s funny, because when I was younger I tried to just back away from my father as much as I could, and some of the philosophies, some of the life lessons, some of the beliefs that he had within me are always constantly ongoing, and they’re always prevalent in my life, whether it’s trying to be every single thing that I can be in my sport or life or relationship or business, whatever avenue I’m pursuing.
They’re all very important to my dad, and he doesn’t really care really what I do. It’s almost like that philosophy – when people look at the Japanese culture you notice that when they – for example, the tea ceremony, and I talk about it in the book.
When you watch a tea ceremony, every single movement, every single gesture is very calculated. It’s very precise, and it’s all protocol. It’s all a part of the system. And it’s almost like they’ve sacrificed every single thing to make that perfect. It’s like their craft. That’s what my dad was asking of me.
He didn’t care whether I was a short-track speed skater or I was making ribbons or blowing up balloons. He doesn’t care. He just wanted to make sure that I was dedicated 100 percent of who I was towards whatever craft I was pursuing.
Tavis: To your point, it reminds me of the story you tell in the book of how your dad basically locked you up or locked you away in a hotel room and told you, “You figure out what you really want to do with your life. When you figure it out -” I’ll let you tell the story – “give me a call.” But tell me the story.
Ohno: Yeah, true story. I’ll back up a little bit. At 14 years old I was number one in the United States. I went to the U.S. world team trials and I had beaten everybody, so I gained success at a very young age.
With that came, obviously, some responsibility. The following year, Olympic year, 1998 Olympic trials, I was 15 years old. I placed dead last at the trials. I went from first to dead last in less than a year. My father was upset, not because I went dead last, but because he saw a lack of effort during that year, that training. I was just going through the motions.
So instead of actually just me just saying, “Okay, we’re done,” he took me to a very remote location where we would always go for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s an area called Moclips, or it’s called Palace Beach. It’s very rough terrain, it’s cold, it rains all the time.
And he said, “Look, Apolo, I’m going to leave you here at this cabin and when you’re ready, you’re going to pick up the pay phone, which is down the street, and you’re going to call me and let me know you’ve made a decision on what you want to do – whether you want to pursue skating, whether you want to go back to going to school full-time. Whatever it is, I don’t care.”
Tavis: And you’re 15.
Ohno: I’m 15 years old, so this is a – (laughter) this is a life decision. What the hell am I going to do at 15 years old? I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t even know what I’m doing the next day.
So a lot of the self-dialogue was created in my head at the age of 15, and I kind of started mindlessly training, and you have to realize at age 15 this cabin is on a resort, okay? So there’s no TV, there’s no Internet, there’s no phone, there’s nothing in the house except for a refrigerator with some food, and my workout gear, and then the pay phone down the street.
I don’t know what to do. There’s nobody there. I feel like this is – this place literally is where I think they send people who are in the witness protection program. (Laughter) It is that desolate – there’s nothing there. So it was a wonderful decision for my dad, and I think he was at a tipping point in his life where he was like, look, I’ve got to teach this kid a lesson. This kid doesn’t even know what he’s throwing away.
I think my dad was almost at the point where he was like, “Okay, this is the last straw. We have to see what happens at this point,” and it was a tipping point. And luckily, I think I chose the right decision.
Tavis: Well, it’s pretty obvious – eight models later – that you made the right decision.
So speaking of eight medals later, what happens now? You’ve got eight medals at home somewhere, “Dancing with the Stars” champion.
Ohno: Yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: Best-selling author now. What happens next regarding the skating?
Ohno: We’re going to skating.
Tavis: Yeah.
Ohno: Well, I’m taking a long break from the sport, the first true break I’ve ever had, probably for the next year, year and a half.
Tavis: Is your dad okay with this?
Ohno: My dad’s happy.
Tavis: Okay, good, all right.
Ohno: I’ll tell you this – I asked my dad the other day, I said, “Dad, what do you think about if I decided to go for the next two Olympics?” He goes, “Oh, I don’t think my heart can make it.” (Laughter) And he gets so, like – he just – my dad has poured so much of his heart and soul into me performing well that when I’m in pain, he’s in pain. When I feel good, he feels good. He really lives it with me, and I think we have that connection, so.
Tavis: Are you going to go for it?
Ohno: I don’t know yet. That’s the honest-to-God truth – I’m not sure yet. I’m taking a true break, meaning I haven’t skated at all; I’m focusing on the book. We’re doing a 35-city West Coast book tour starting the day after Thanksgiving.
Tavis: You ain’t taking a break yet, then.
Ohno: No breaks. (Laughter) I haven’t slept in the same place more than three nights since February. That’s how busy I’ve been. So a lot of things on the plate. I’m very, very happy with the book. I want it to inspire people. The book was written for a to of different types of people, not just kids, but I like inspiring parents, teachers, individuals, to be better. A lot of things. So it excites me to – it makes me inspired to be stronger and be better for tomorrow.
Tavis: Well, before he takes his break and goes back to the cabin to figure out what he’s going to do for these next two Olympics, (laughter) you might catch him somewhere on the road, promoting and signing copies of his new book. It’s called “Zero Regrets: Be Greater than Yesterday.” His name, of course, Apolo Ohno. Apolo, good to have you on the program. Congratulations.
Ohno: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: May 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm