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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

Collin Morikawa jumps into projected Olympic golf field

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Collin Morikawa would not have qualified outright for the Tokyo Olympics had they been held this summer. Now, after winning the PGA Championship, he is third overall in global qualifying for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Morikawa, a 23-year-old who took the same number of PGA Tour starts to win his maiden major as Tiger Woods (29), went from an alternate for the expected four-man U.S. Olympic team to No. 2 among Americans in the early qualifying standings, according to golf rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter.

Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are the other Americans in qualifying position, according to @VC606.

Morikawa, whose father is of Japanese descent, turned professional in June 2019 and made his first 22 cuts, a feat bettered only by Woods.

The 23-year-old could become the youngest U.S. Olympic male golfer since 1904 (important note: golf was not part of the Olympic program from 1908 through 2012). Come next summer, he will still be younger than all but seven men from the Rio Olympic golf field of 60, according to Olympedia.org.

Olympic golf qualifying standings will fluctuate significantly. There are five major championships left in the qualifying window, starting with the U.S. Open in September and finishing with next summer’s U.S. Open, both airing on NBC Sports.

How tough will it be to make the U.S. Olympic team? Consider that the three Americans to win majors in 2019 — Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland — are currently not in Olympic qualifying position.

The U.S. has seven of the top nine in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is calculated differently than Olympic qualifying.

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?

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He controversially beat Roy Jones Jr. for Olympic gold. He wishes he had silver.

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The last South Korean boxer to win an Olympic gold medal has spent the past 32 years wishing it was a silver.

Entering the men’s light-middleweight final against an American teenager named Roy Jones Jr. on the last day of the 1988 Games in Seoul, Park Si-Hun fantasized about etching his name in the pantheon of South Korean sports legends in front of a delirious home crowd.

He did get his gold three rounds later, but not the way he envisioned.

Park’s win by a 3-2 decision remains as one of the most controversial moments in boxing history, as Jones had seemed to dominate the fight from start to finish.

The outcome drew instant criticism and disdain, even from South Koreans, who heckled Park at the podium and bombarded local TV stations with phone calls protesting that the country’s home advantage had gone too far.

Jones went on to have a phenomenal professional career, retiring in 2018 with a 66-9 record that cemented him as one of the sport’s all-time greats. He is now a boxing commentator and is planning to fight Mike Tyson in an exhibition of retired greats later this year.

Deeply shaken and scarred, Park quietly retired at the end of the Seoul Games and spent the next 13 years as a middle- and high-school teacher in a rural seaside town before making a return to competitive boxing as a coach.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Park said his dream was to see one of his boxers pull off a convincing gold-winning performance in a future Olympics, which he said would possibly give him some sense of redemption and closure.

After three decades, it still stings that his gold is seen as a smudge on the image of the Games his country still glorifies as its coming-out party to the world.

“There’s hardened resentment built up in me that I will probably carry for the rest of my life,” said Park, 54, who now coaches the small municipal boxing team of Seogwipo City in the island province of Jeju.

“I didn’t want my hand to be raised (after the fight with Jones), but it did go up, and my life became gloomy because of that.”

Park still grimaces when talking about his match with Jones.

Desperate for Olympic glory, Park had gutted out the tournament with a broken right hand he suffered during training. He said it didn’t really matter until he met Jones, the one opponent in Seoul who was quicker than him.

With the injury taking away his right-hand, Park simply had no chance at slowing Jones, who was coming at him with “excellent speed, power and technique.”

“I was pretty quick for a middleweight, but Jones was at a different level,” Park recalled. “A boxer just knows whether he had won or lost a match. I thought I lost because I didn’t put up a fight deserving of a win.”

Park said he felt “confused” when the referee raised his hand. Wearing a stunned look on his face, Park awkwardly embraced and held up an expressionless Jones into the air.

He said he couldn’t wait to get off the podium, where he smiled weakly and slowly waved a bouquet of flowers toward the stands as fans let out hesitant cheers and scattered boos.

An even more humiliating moment came when a South Korean national broadcaster invited all of the country’s 12 gold medalists to a live TV celebration shortly after the Games. The host treated Park like he wasn’t there while interviewing each of the other 11.

There was an outpouring of media criticism and what Park described as “unspeakable” insults, which included derisive public calls for him to forfeit his medal.

The emotional distress “was like being hit with a hammer on the back of your head, again and again.”

“I keep thinking how my life would have been happier had I finished second,” Park said. “A gold medal is important, but isn’t any Olympic medal satisfying and glorious?”

Park said the sense of defeat and depression sometimes led to suicidal urges. He credits his wife for helping him navigate out of his darkest moods. The couple contemplated moving to a different country before deciding to stay after they had children.

Their youngest child, Rei, now a 20-year-old college student in Louisiana, has his own athletic ambitions, training as a javelin thrower with dreams of competing in the 2024 Olympics.

Park said he keeps his Olympic gold framed on a wall at his home in mainland South Korea, along with other awards he won in amateur competition. He doesn’t recall ever bringing it out of the house.

While Park doesn’t have many regrets about never going pro, saying he probably wouldn’t have gone far with an evasive style built for efficiency and avoiding hits but not for initiating pain, he still watched Jones’ post-Olympic triumphs with envy.

He wondered whether the public would ever forget the fiasco surrounding his gold medal, which the South Korean media brought up after almost every Jones fight or whenever there was controversy in any Olympic sport. He would try to laugh it off whenever students asked about his gold at school.

After overlooking him for years, South Korea’s boxing association reached back to Park in 2001, asking him to coach the national team following years of disappointing performances in international events, which reflected a dearth of talent in the sport.

During his on-and-off coaching stints with the national team since then, Park trained several boxers who performed decently in various events, but they never came close to an Olympic gold.

Park had the highest hopes for Lee Ok-Song, who won the men’s 51kg division in the 2005 World Championships. But Lee failed to reach the quarterfinals of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and retired after the Games.

Park said he had occasionally kept in touch with Jones, including a brief telephone conversation with him in 2004 while visiting Atlanta for an international event.

The International Olympic Committee in 1997 concluded it had found no evidence to support bribery allegations against the judges who voted in favor of Park in the Seoul Games.

The U.S. Olympic Committee had called for an investigation in 1996 after documents belonging to East Germany’s Stasi secret police revealed reports of judges being paid to vote for South Korean boxers.

While Park left South Korea’s national team after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, he hasn’t given up on his goal of winning an Olympic gold as a coach.

Among the four boxers he trains in Seogwipo, Park is most impressed with Kang Hyeon-Bin, who competes in the men’s 64kg division, and Cho Hye-Bin, a woman in the 51kg category.

“I am constantly looking for a raw stone I could polish into a jewel,” he said. “I want to sculpt a true Olympic gold medalist with my own hands and see that fighter take the highest spot on the podium. That would restore my honor and allow me to leave the boxing ring for good.”

MORE: Top U.S. Olympic boxing hopeful cleared of doping violations caused by sex

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