Apolo Ohno

Apolo Ohno talks Ironman, Olympic comparisons and Pyeongchang 2018

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Apolo Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian with eight medals, took on a different challenge this year.

The retired short track speed skater who used to train for 40-second sprints signed up for the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The event includes swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a marathon (26.2 miles) back to back to back.

After six months of training, he crossed the finish line of the Ironman, his third triathlon, in 9 hours, 52 minutes, 27 seconds on Oct. 11. He raised his arms, flexed his biceps and yelled as a Backstreet Boys song played on loudspeakers (video here).

NBC will air an Ironman World Championships special on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET. Ohno spoke with OlympicTalk about his Ironman experience (peppered with some Olympic questions) this week.

OlympicTalk: Well, you reached your goal of breaking 10 hours.

Ohno: When I told a very close friend of mine who was a very, very good triathlete that I wanted to break 10 hours, he laughed. He said, you need another six months. You can do it, but you need a full 12 months to properly engage your body and muscle fibers to switch from being a sprinter to becoming an endurance athlete. But the mind is powerful.

OlympicTalk: What lifestyle changes did you make to train for the Ironman?

Ohno: I was maintaining all my different obligations in my businesses, in my domestic-branding life here in the States, international travel for my business, while trying to do a sport that requires half your day, at least four days a week. My recovery days were two-hour spins on the bike followed by a 30-minute run. Recovery, for me, should be chilling at home, getting a massage.

OlympicTalk: Was it tougher than training for the Olympics?

Ohno: Different type of toughness. When you’re about to leg press 2,000 pounds (for short track speed skating training), that’s more intensity, but it’s done in less than 10 seconds. We’re talking about a 100-mile bike ride, riding solo on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway in California) from Brentwood, around Oxnard and back and then running for 60 minutes. That’s a six-, seven-hour day, alone. There’s no escape. It’s boring. It’s brutal. It’s difficult.

The first six hours of the day, talent and your training will get you through. I don’t care who you are, if you’re going eight or nine hours, the remaining time is pure will power and guts.

OlympicTalk: Did you listen to anything on the long runs?

Ohno: I tried to cycle on and off with my music, because you’re not allowed to use it in the race. I listened to everything, from hip-hop, R&B, house music, podcasts. I’m a total nerd. I listened to podcasts at 1.5 speed. I’m crazy.

OlympicTalk: We know you have a very close bond with your dad, Yuki. What were his thoughts on you doing this?

Ohno: When I told my dad that I was thinking about doing the Ironman, the first thing he told me was that you shouldn’t do it. You’re going to wreck your body. You’re not an endurance athlete. I said, I’ve got to do this for me.

When I crossed the finish, my dad was in tears. My dad has a very good energy with me. He could see and feel what I had gone through.

OlympicTalk: Many Ironman finishers get a tattoo to mark the accomplishment. Will you?

Ohno: I am not. I am clean. I’m one of like 10 people in L.A. who doesn’t have a tattoo (not even an Olympic rings tattoo).

OlympicTalk: What was the toughest part of the race?

Ohno: I had friends who were part of a triathlon team, who were like, look, I need to talk to you before the race tomorrow. There’s a portion of the (running) course called the Energy Lab. It’s four miles. Your mind will tell you to stop. You can’t stop. You must keep going. If you can succeed and survive out of the Energy Lab, where it is so hot and the air is so still, you will be rewarded with the greatest final six miles of your entire life (to the finish line). The final two miles are basically going to be wondering when you can do the Ironman again.

The problem was, when I came out of the Energy Lab, I was expecting spectators for the last six miles. There wasn’t. So the hardest part was the Energy Lab, and the next 3.5 miles was brutal.

OlympicTalk: What other Olympian would you like to see do an Ironman?

Ohno: I think 70 percent of Olympic athletes could do this if they put the training in. We’re a different breed. We’re wired differently. Who would I have do it? Who would I want to see suffer? (takes several seconds to think) Shani Davis, if he could swim. He can’t swim. If he could swim, he would crush this thing. He’s a genetic freak.

OlympicTalk: What about Nordic combined gold medalist Bill Demong, who just ran the New York City Marathon in 2:33?

Ohno: Billy? He doesn’t count (laughs jokingly). He’s like a genetic anomaly. I talked to him (before the New York City Marathon). He was like yeah, I’m really pumped. I’m like, dude, you need to do this. You need to go pro your first race. You’re going to make the podium. You’re an animal. He should do an Ironman, because of his mentality. He’s an animal.

OlympicTalk: How does the Ironman finisher’s medal compare to Olympic medals?

Ohno: I display that (Ironman) one proudly. My Olympic medals are with my father. I’m very proud of them. I’m just weird about my (Olympic) medals. I don’t really show them. This one, I brag about being an Ironman.

OlympicTalk: Would you have given up one of your eight Olympic medals for the Ironman medal?

Ohno: (Smiles) Oh man, I don’t think so.

OlympicTalk: Not even a relay bronze?

Ohno: No, I can’t. Those are my boys. I’ll tell you the reason why. It’s nothing against an Ironman. It’s the fact that I sacrificed 15 years of my life for the Olympics. So every minute, every medal was so meaningful, regardless of color.

OlympicTalk: Any other athletic goals for you?

Ohno: I haven’t identified them yet, but I’m sure there are.

OlympicTalk: Something as hard as an Ironman?

Ohno: Maybe not as hard from an endurance perspective. It’s going to have to be intense, though. The true test of an athlete.

OlympicTalk: You’ve also done the New York City Marathon. You seem to be an adrenaline nut.

Ohno: But I’m actually not. It’s just when I commit to something, then my brain goes. But if I’m not committed, I’m laid back. When I go to the gym, I don’t usually work out crazy. I mean, I can. I’ll scare people at the gym. But I don’t do it all the time. I do it in cycles.

For example, my old strength coach and I. I said, let’s develop a 15-minute workout that I can do five days a week for 14 days straight with a specific training and diet plan. I want to get as ripped as I humanly possibly can. I cannot work out more than 30 minutes a day, though. So we developed this crazy, super high intensity workout. I haven’t done it religiously yet, but it’s pretty damn good. I like human data, human trial and error.

OlympicTalk: Moving to the Olympics. How do you think you will be received if you attend or work at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea (where you haven’t always been well-liked)?

Ohno: I think it’s going to be fantastic. I’ve been to Korea many, many times. I go to Korea in a month for business. The relationship is obviously much different now (than when I competed). I love Korean people. I love Korean food. I love the culture. I grew up around Korean people my whole life, even before skating. Some of my best friends are Korean. I think it’s going to go well. I’m glad I don’t have to face the Koreans in Pyeongchang, because they’re going to be really hard to beat (laughs).

OlympicTalk: If Viktor Ahn, the South Korean-turned-Russian short track skater, competes in Pyeongchang, how do you think he will be received?

Ohno: He’ll be an absolute superstar. I think they’ll get over (that he competes for Russia). He’s an anomaly.

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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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