Apolo Ohno is scheduled to be a star. He is the best short-track speed skater in the world, and he could win a gold medal in each of his sport's four Olympic events. At 19, he has the fresh-faced good looks of a boy-band member, a marketable name and a signature style--flowing hair beneath a red bandanna and a soul patch under his lower lip--that makes him instantly recognizable. Abandoned by his mother as an infant, reared in Seattle by an itinerant Japanese hair-stylist father, Ohno has also waged the personal struggle required by the modern, feel-good Olympics.
There's only one problem: Ohno can be something of a knucklehead. He is a teenager, just a few years removed from a pattern of skipping school and interrupting training runs with pizza binges. In December a skater named Tommy O'Hare alleged that Ohno and fellow U.S. medal hopeful Rusty Smith, who had already qualified for the American team, tanked the 1,000-m short-track final at the Olympic trials so their friend Shani Davis could finish first and make the team instead of O'Hare. Despite some damning evidence, an arbitrator exonerated Ohno, but the mini-scandal is a reminder that even with his prodigious talent, Ohno is no sure thing.
It is hard to tell if Ohno's rough edges are the product of an unusual upbringing or merely the symptoms of a flake. His father Yuki emigrated from Tokyo at 18 and became a hair stylist to top models. He traveled the world, married, had Apolo and quickly divorced. Apolo's mother waived custody and split. He has seen her only in photos.
Yuki tried to instill discipline in his son, but Apolo was a tough nut. He chewed rocks in the schoolyard, hung out with a dangerous crowd in his early teens and made an art of defying his father. "I was rough. If my dad said yes, I said no. That's the way it was for years."
But during the 1994 Winter Olympics, both were riveted by short-track skating, in which competitors race around a tiny oval in tight packs, with no marked lanes, at speeds of up to 35 m.p.h. It's human NASCAR. Ohno had already won a national in-line skating championship, but Rollerbladers don't compete for gold. So Ohno put himself on ice, and Yuki, happy to see his son inspired, shuttled him to lessons and meets.
Within two years, Ohno, though only 14, was fast enough to get an unprecedented invitation to train at the Olympic complex in Lake Placid, N.Y. But he didn't want to go. When he was dropped off at the airport, he disappeared inside and called a friend to pick him up. For the second flight east, Yuki strapped him to the seat. Ohno quickly became the uncut jewel of the U.S. program, but his lack of dedication was profound. He would duck into a Pizza Hut in the middle of training runs. "I just messed around during training, not focusing," he says now. "I didn't even know how to focus. I'd just go."
Despite being overweight and underprepared, Ohno was devastated when he failed to make the '98 Olympic team. He flew home and spent a week in a secluded cabin trying to figure out whether he had the makings of an elite athlete.
Ohno decided he did, and he has been nearly unstoppable on the ice ever since. He started eating right and became a master of technique, which, in curve-heavy short track, is just as important as the raw power generated by his bullet-shape 5-ft. 7-in., 165-lb. frame.