The Most Decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. History is Asian American
Meet Apolo Anton Ohno.
He’s the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. History with eight medals in short track speed skating.
The half-Japanese athlete was raised in Seattle by a single father who immigrated to the U.S. from Japan. His parents divorced when he was very young.
His father, Yuki Ohno, has the classic immigrant story many of us and our parents can relate to.
“He didn’t speak any English,” Ohno told NextShark. “He didn’t have any money. He didn’t know what to do, and all he had was two cameras around his neck, like a typical Japanese tourist, and he sold the cameras as soon as he arrived to get money and then he began his life by doing and trying every single possible job known to man.”
Like many others, Ohno’s dad was a strict Asian parent who emphasized academic achievement. However, his long work hours as a hair stylist prevented him from seeing Apolo during his childhood.
“I was very defiant,” he said. “I didn’t listen to my dad. I was a bad kid. I thought I knew all the answers to everything. Whatever he would say, if he said ‘red’ I would say ‘blue,’ if he said ‘black’ I would say ‘white,’ just because. Not because I believed he was wrong, but because I just wanted to basically say the complete opposite.”
To keep him busy, Ohno’s dad enrolled him into competitive swimming and quad-speed roller skating at age 6. He discovered Apolo’s athletic abilities and decided to support his dream of becoming a pro short track speed skater.
“My father instilled in me at a very young age that anything was possible, but it would require me to go above and beyond what normal societal belief systems are,” he said. “I took that to heart.”
“He told me when I was very young, ‘surround yourself with positive people who are smarter than you, who are better than you, and believe that you have the answers for yourself and listen to your instincts, listen to your gut and also listen to your inner voice,” he added.
His father supported him throughout his career, driving Ohno all over the country to compete. In 1996, at 13, he became the youngest skater admitted to the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center.
“My dad is like my best friend, he’s my partner, he’s my teammate, he’s my coach and my mentor and he’s also my father, kind of all encompassed into one,” he said.
As a half-Asian, Ohno noted that he struggled with his identity when he was in junior high school.
“I had no racial identity. The White kids didn’t consider me White and the Asian kids didn’t consider me Asian. I was in this weird middle place where I didn’t really know who I was. I kind of got along with everybody and bounced around.”
However, as he got older, he learned how to be proud of who he was and embraced both sides of his culture.
“When I go to Asia, I feel at home, but I come to L.A. and I feel at home. I’m very proud to be Asian American, I’m very proud to have an Asian father. I’m very proud to have those Asian influences in my life and have friends who are Asian.”
Fast forward to today, Ohno has eight World Championship titles under his belt and eight Olympic Gold Medals. Aside from his family, Ohno credits his mindset for allowing him to achieve what he has.
Apolo’s girlfriend Bianca offers support that always sticks with him. “My girlfriend Bianca always tells me, she’s like, ‘You have to inherently believe, Apolo, that what you really want is actually what you deserve.’ That resonates with me in a way that I can’t believe.”
“In speed skating, I really thought that I deserved to win,” he said. “I really thought that I deserved to be on the podium, because I went through the craziness of training that nobody else was willing to go through. Because I dedicated so much of my time that other people didn’t want to do, because I spent every ounce, every minute of the day obsessing about the sport. I knew that I left no stones unturned in my preparation.”
Apolo has been very in tune with his Asian side ever since he was young. He told us about regularly visiting his grandmother in Japan and eating onigiri, one of his favorite Japanese snacks.
“My Asian roots have always been something that I felt at a very young age,” he said. “When I go to Japan, I feel very, very, very at home, but also I feel like a foreigner, because I don’t speak Japanese, but there definitely is something in a calling, I think, that is almost unexplainable when I’m in Asia and I feel like I understand the culture, I feel like I understand the psychology, and it’s just fun.”
“I would recommend everybody, if they ever had the chance to just travel to Asia and be hosted by someone who is local, you have to do it, because it’ll change your perspective on the world. It’ll give you gratitude of how good you really got it here in the U.S., but also it’ll give you a sense of opportunity that exists in the world that maybe doesn’t exist here because the U.S. is a saturated market.”
Since retiring in 2010 to pursue business, Apolo has built a successful nutraceutical supplement company, become an angel investor, and gotten involved with the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. He regularly travels back to Asia to conduct business. He credits his success to the same mindset that made him a speed skating champion.
“I feel the same way in business,” he said. “I feel that I am destined to win. Now, whether I do it or not on this particular business is not always up to me, but my preparation and doing every single thing possible to give myself the best chance of success is within my realm, and so, whether I win or not, I think is irrelevant. I think learning as much as I possibly can in the short amount of time we’re on the planet is, perhaps, probably the biggest lesson of all, and also doing it in a way that I feel fulfilled.”
“You can chase these monetary decisions all you want, but if you’re not doing it with some type of purpose and passion and understanding that you feel fulfilled at the end of the day, I think that’s a major issue and you’ll be a very unhappy person,” he said. “I think that comes with understanding who you are as a person and what drives you and what your sole purpose for why you’re doing this is very, very important.”
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