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

Germany denied gold-medal sweep of world luge championships races

Jonas Muller
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Austrian Jonas Müller denied Germany’s bid to sweep all eight singles and doubles races at the world luge championships.

Müller, a 25-year-old who was not on Austria’s Olympic team, won the men’s event by .104 of a second over German Max Langenhan at worlds in Oberhof, Germany, combining times from two runs. Another Austrian, 2018 Olympic champion David Gleirscher, earned bronze.

Germany won the first seven of eight singles and doubles races on Friday and Saturday, including sprint events that aren’t on the Olympic program. Its last gold-medal sweep at worlds was in 2013, when there were four events on the program. Germany also swept the Olympic golds in 2014 and 2022.

Müller, the 2020 World silver medalist who dropped out of Austria’s top three men last season, said his sled broke in a crash at a World Cup two weeks ago in Sigulda, Latvia.

“I flew home the next day and unpacked the old sled again,” he said, according to the International Luge Federation. “As you can see, the old sled doesn’t seem so bad.”

While Germany has dominated women’s and doubles events, this marked the third consecutive worlds with a non-German men’s winner, its longest drought since the mid-1990s.

Johannes Ludwig retired after winning last year’s Olympics. Felix Loch, a two-time Olympic champion and record six-time world champion, placed fourth on Sunday.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic found this trip to Australia far less complicated, and far more successful, than that of a year ago.

Unable to enter his best event in 2022 after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic accomplished all he could have wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis.

Only briefly challenged in the final on Sunday night, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) for a record-extending 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title overall. As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“He’s the greatest that has ever held a tennis racket,” Tsitsipas said.

Djokovic stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run at the tournament for a man in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 there to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two at the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man in tennis history.

Margaret Court, with 24, Serena Williams, with 23, and Steffi Graf, with 22, have the most among women.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, allowing the 35-year-old from Serbia to break a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most. Jimmy Connors holds that mark, at 109.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece’s other one also ended in a loss to Djokovic, at the 2021 French Open.

He was superior throughout against Tsitsipas, but especially so in the two tiebreakers. He took a 4-1 lead in the first and after it was 4-all, pulled off three points in a row. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple then climbed into the stands, pumped his fist and jumped with his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, and other members of the entourage, and collapsed, crying.

Little doubt this is of no solace to Tsitsipas, but there is no shame in failing to defeat Djokovic in Melbourne. Challenging his dominion on those blue hard courts is every bit the monumental task that taking on Nadal on the red clay at Roland Garros is.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30,

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, he likely regretted the choice, because Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

One of Djokovic’s many other strengths is his return game, and he accumulated three break points within 17 minutes, converting the last for a quick 3-1 lead when Tsitsipas double-faulted.

The trophy for which they were playing was displayed on a pedestal near a corner of the court, and both men would get within reach of it whenever wandering over to towel off between points at that end.

So close, yes, but for Tsitsipas, never truly close enough.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was, put simply, too good. Too accurate with his strokes — making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe — and anticipation. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble). Too dangerous with his returns and damaging enough with his serves.

Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one shot, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after the faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible — and had worried him at the beginning of Week 1, prompting him to turn to what he said was “a lot” of pain-killing pills and other treatments he didn’t detail.

And then there was the more complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal victory. The tournament banned spectators from bringing in flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Both Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding, based on Srdjan thinking he was with a group of Serbian fans.

Because of that episode, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal victory over Tommy Paul on Friday, and was not seen in the Djokovic guest box on Sunday.

No matter any of it, Djokovic managed to excel as he so often does, winning 17 sets in a row after ceding one in the second round last week.

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