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.