VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Apolo Anton Ohno glided around the ice with a U.S. flag tucked under an arm, flashing a handful of fingers plus one.
That makes six, as in matching Bonnie Blair as the most decorated Winter Olympian from the United States.
This one was a silver in the 1,500 meters, and it typified the wild world of short-track speedskating. Ohno was fourth going into the last turn when two of the three Koreans in front of him wiped out, giving him a clear stretch to the finish line behind Lee Jung-su of South Korea.
It also paved the way to bronze for J.R. Celski, just five months after the blade of his right skate sliced his left thigh to the bone during a crash at the U.S. short track championships.
“That last two laps was pretty intense. There was a lot of bumping, a lot of contact,” Ohno said. “This is what this sport is all about.”
Ohno and Celski put the United States on the medal stand for the first time at the Vancouver Games. Then Hannah Kearney won the women’s moguls to put an American on the top step for the first time. Teammate Shannon Bahrke earned bronze, so the United States ended the day with four medals and an early lead in the overall chase.
Of course, the first day of competition was filled with Vancouver Olympics firsts, such as Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann landing the first of 86 gold medals to be awarded and Dutch speedskater Sven Kramer setting the first Olympic record while winning the 5,000 meters.
Ohno, who has two medals of each color, moved past Eric Heiden as the most decorated American male at the Winter Games and also claimed the mark for most short track medals since the wild-and-wooly sport joined the Olympic program in 1992.
Heiden, now the team doctor for U.S. Speedskating, told the Associated Press he was “glued to the television” while working in the training room at the Olympic Village.
“The thing that really sets him apart is he’s been doing this for a number of years,” Heiden said when reached on his cell phone. “We’ve learned to appreciate what dedication and hard work he’s had to put in. He’s a product of both those things.”
Ohno grabbed an American flag, though he had to put it under one arm when he held up his fingers for the crowd – all five on the left hand and another on the right.
Make it six, and he has three more events at the Vancouver Games to pass Blair.
“I’ve come prepared, more than I’ve ever prepared for anything in my life,” Ohno said. “I’m in a very, very good place. Obviously, I know I have six medals now and I have no regrets about this entire Olympic Games experience. This is going to stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Ohno eliminated Canadian favorite Charles Hamelin in the semifinals with a daring inside move, drawing groans from many of the red-clad fans in the packed house of 14,200 at Pacific Coliseum. But there was still plenty of red-white-and-blue cheering for the 27-year-old American, who is practically a hometown favorite at these games.
Vancouver is just a three-hour drive north of suburban Seattle, where Ohno was born and raised by a single father, getting his start in skating with wheels under his feet rather than blades.
“I just feel so blessed to be here, healthy, competing,” he said. “It feels like home soil to me. We just have so much support in the crowd.”
When he saw Olympic short track for the first time on TV, Ohno decided that’s what he wanted to do. Clearly, the ice suited him just fine.
No sport is more unpredictable than short track, either.
Ohno won his first medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games when a crash on the final turn took out every skater but one, Australia’s Steven Bradbury, who coasted across the line as perhaps the flukiest gold medalist. Ohno, his leg gashed by a skate blade, crawled across the line for a silver.
Talk about symmetry.
Ohno’s sixth medal was claimed under similar circumstances, though this time he didn’t have to spill any blood. The powerful South Koreans put three skaters in the final, and it looked as though they would sweep the medals when all of them shot ahead of Ohno on the final lap.
“Myself and everybody here thought it was finished and done with,” Heiden said. “Typical short track. It’s never over ’til it’s over. It’s sort of deja vu with what happened in Salt Lake City with Bradbury.”
Ohno nearly crashed when he got tangled up with Sung Si-bak, actually sticking out his right arm to fend off the South Korean – and perhaps keep himself up as he stumbled. Once Ohno regained his balance, it looked as though the Koreans were gone.
Then came the final turn.
Lee was out front and avoided trouble. But Lee Ho-suk cut in on Sung while trying to set up a last-second pass on Lee, and they both slid into the padded barrier, their medal hopes dashed in a heap. Ohno skated right on by, as did Celski.
In the women’s moguls, Kearney waited four years to overcome her bitter disappointment. Canada will have to wait at least one more day before it can really let loose.
The 23-year-old from New Hampshire slashed through the rain and down the moguls Saturday night – a remarkable run that gave America its first gold medal of the Vancouver Games and denied Jenn Heil the honor of becoming the first Canadian to win gold on home turf.
Heil came in as the favorite on paper – winner of her last four World Cup events – but this one really wasn’t close. Kearney scored 26.63 points to win by .94 – a wide margin in a sport often decided by tenths and hundredths.