Apolo Ohno talks Spartan Challenge, 2018 Olympics in Q&A

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Apolo Ohno needs a new challenge.

From 2002 through 2010, Ohno won a U.S. record eight Winter Olympic medals in short track speed skating.

In 2011, Ohno ran the New York City Marathon in 3 hours, 25 minutes, 12 seconds.

In 2014, Ohno completed the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in 9 hours, 52 minutes, 27 seconds. He swam 2.4 miles (1:00:29), biked 112 miles (5:07:15) and ran a marathon (3:36:41) back to back to back. He finished within an hour of the women’s elite winner.

Ohno says he’s feeling the itch to climb another athletic mountain again soon, inspired by his latest TV venture.

The NBC Olympic analyst is doing play-by-play commentary for Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, whose second season debuts on NBC on Monday at 10 p.m. ET. More on Spartan is here.

Ohno discussed Spartan, short track at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and his familiarity with South Korea in a recent Q&A:

OlympicTalk: What appeals to you about Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge?

Ohno: I saw this rise of obstacle-course racing phenomenon. I would say about five years ago, and it was really a lot of my friends who were not into sports kept telling me every other weekend, oh I’m going and you’ve got to try this Spartan race or Tough Mudder.

Then I noticed there was so many crossover athletes, either those who train for Ninja Warrior or those who are CrossFitters or triathletes or marathon runners and then when I was talking to Arthur Smith of the production company regarding this specific show, I saw the storyline of some of the individuals and teams they put together. That’s when I got really excited because I saw this opportunity to tell this story about why people come together, and they do these crazy feats of challenge.

OlympicTalk: What’s the closest thing you’ve done to a Spartan race?

Ohno: The Ironman is probably the closest thing, although I’ve done some amateur-style obstacle-course racing when I was in Asia and Europe. But nothing to what I saw on the show. It’s on the old set that they used to use for “The Walking Dead.” It’s like an old metal fabrication warehouse right outside of downtown Atlanta. They just transformed this place. It’s basically like a massive background full of these crazy obstacles. It’s what you would imagine Army boot camp times 100.

OlympicTalk: Do you have any athletic goals coming up?

Ohno: I think it’s time for me to look up something. I work out on the daily, but I’d like to do something. Spartan may be that thing. It seems like I need to get a good group of friends together. … The one thing I loved about training for the Ironman is I was able to get up really early in the morning and go meet people at the people at the pier, either from Malibu or Santa Monica, and then you’ve got people from all different walks of life who come together for this one common goal of competing in triathlon or Ironman competitions. I kind of miss that.

OlympicTalk: Your recently visited South Korea, a year before it hosts the Olympics. How was that?

Ohno: I’ve been there several times. My relationship with South Korea has been a long one, and obviously more highlighted than I think the average individual. But I love Korea. I always have a great time when I go to South Korea.

OlympicTalk: You met old rival Kim Dong-Sung there. What did you talk about?

Ohno: We didn’t talk about much. I don’t know him very well personally. I knew him, obviously, for years and years as a competing athlete. I studied him and watched him skate. He is probably one of the few athletes that I don’t keep up with. … I’m always respectful. I’m always cordial. I think he was the same.

OlympicTalk: Another old rival, Viktor Ahn, struggled a bit at worlds. What’s his 2018 Olympic outlook?

Ohno: You can never count him out. He’s got so much experience. He commands such a presence on the ice. Often times, athletes will concede to him, even if they are actually better. So I think he’s got a lot of advantages, still. I think it’s going to come down to his summer training, if he gets the same support that he did for Sochi.

OlympicTalk: What’s the overriding storyline for South Korean short track at their home Olympics?

Ohno: The men’s world champion was South Korean last season. But to me it wasn’t a clean win, and it definitely wasn’t a dominating win. You look at the years prior, even in Sochi, the South Korean men’s team were nowhere to be found on the podium [no Olympic medals for the first time]. They weren’t even competitive in the slightest degree. The world has changed. It’s gotten significantly more competitive.

Everyone has superstar players coming out of the woodwork. It’s no longer the top three of just China, Korea and Canada. I think the Koreans are under massive amounts of pressure to retain that legacy that they’ve built for so many decades of being the most dominant force in short track speed skating. I have no doubt and confidence that they’re going to show up prepared and ready, but it’s definitely going to be a much different scenario than they’ve had in the past.

OlympicTalk: Define success for South Korean short track in PyeongChang.

Ohno: They have to win gold. Nothing else. I would say the expectation both on the men’s and the women’s side is to have a dominant show on the podium with multiple gold medals, absolutely.

OlympicTalk: Is there one specific short track event that is most important?

Ohno: The relay is very important because, obviously, it’s a community. In South Korea, when one wins, they all win. Individually, I think the 1500m and the 1000m are very important to them. The 500m is going to be tough.

OlympicTalk: You mentioned pressure. What can you say about specific skaters on the Korean team?

Ohno: The women’s side, I think they have a very good shot. They’re up against some really strong girls from China, but I think, strategically, if they can put it together they have a very good chance of getting gold. If not, silver.

[For the men] you have Kwak Yoon-Gy. To me he’s got the most potential to be amazing. Some of the guys who won medals in the past are not on that team. So they’ve got some new players. But to be completely honest with you, I think they have to overhaul their training program. I don’t know what they’re going to do this year, but if they do, I think they’ve got a very, very strong shot at winning multiple medals at the Olympic Games.

OlympicTalk: What do you think is deficient with their training program?

Ohno: They definitely have never been shy with hard work. But I think now with the age of sports science, it’s showing just waves of accelerating both training and recovery. So, [South Korea’s] old-school mentality approach towards training, that’s what it is. It’s old school. If they can embrace some of the sport science components of how to approach their training program, they’re going to benefit immensely. Now, everyone in the world knows how to do their equipment properly. They know how to train for short track speed skating properly. They’re all monitoring their bloodwork, recovery, sleep, hormone patterns. It’s a different game than it was 10 years ago.

OlympicTalk: You wrote about a training stint in South Korea between the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. What did you learn about South Korean short track culture during that trip?

Ohno: Their commitment to excellence and perfection. I think we in the western world believe in this capacity of hard work, right? We all believe that hard work is important, and we have to embrace it.

There [in South Korea], just the level of intensity of training that the 8-year-old, the 10-year-old, the 12-year-old had, 4:30, 5:30 in the morning, before the sun was up. They’re at the ice rink, perfecting their technique. Sure, they may not be lifting weights or doing feats of strength, but their pure repetition of perfection, of doing something over and over and over again until it literally is perfect, in terms of the biomechanics, was completely astonishing to me.

I had never seen a commitment to that level before in my entire life. No one in the U.S., even to this day, has ever dreamed of putting that many hours of work in. They were 15 years ahead of the game. Now, everyone has kind of caught up, and [South Koreans] are still doing the same kind of training they were doing back then. Which I think is not exactly the most conducive to achieving that high level of success.

Now, they still won the world championships last season, so it doesn’t really matter. But when I was there, it was crazy. I was thinking I was going to get up early at 5:30. I got to the ice rink, and these kids have already been there for an hour.

OlympicTalk: U.S. short trackers earned zero individual medals in Sochi. Will they perform better or worse in PyeongChang?

Ohno: Their showings the last couple of years have been very, very lackluster. The No. 1 man in the U.S., J.R. [Celski], has battled some injuries. It seems like he’s got his mental game back on track, but, again, it requires so much more than just hard, physical training in this sport. You’ve really got to have that mentality. I guess you call it that killer instinct to go above and beyond what you think your competitors are doing. I haven’t seen that yet.

The women’s side is in a lot of trouble, and I think that U.S. Speedskating knows that. They’re just not even competitive right now in the world. I’m being obviously critical, but I think it’s fair to say. At the end of the day, I want the U.S. to do very well. I want us to win medals. I hope that they can turn that program around, but they’re going to have to do a lot. The Games are in February.

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MORE: Takeaways from World Short Track Speed Skating Champs

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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