VANCOUVER, B.C. – Somehow, almost always, Apolo Anton Ohno finds a way to the podium.
Somehow, through three Olympics, often from the back of the pack, Ohno has found a way through trouble, a way to stay on his skates while others fell, a way to crawl, lunge, skate to another and another and another medal.
In the final frantic laps of this free-for-all Friday, in probably his last Olympic race, Ohno got one last adrenaline-laced shove from his protege J.R. Celski in the short-track 5,000-meter relay.
In fourth place with two laps to go, Ohno rode the momentum of Celski’s shove past the Chinese skater in front of him and into the bronze medal.
Canada won gold and Korea silver. And Ohno got his eighth Olympic medal.
“Right when I pushed him into third, I knew he could handle the distance from there,” said Celski, who won his second bronze medal. “It was awesome to push him into medal position.”
Ohno was lucky again. Another skater in another race lost another edge and Ohno catapulted past him. But if luck truly is the residue of hard work, Ohno had earned all of the good fortune he has found on the icy turns of short track.
After being disqualified in the final of the 500 an hour earlier, Ohno, as he has for every race in his Olympic fortnight, had to come from behind.
In front of one final sold-out house, he found one more sliver of racing luck. In the final two laps of his 2010 Olympics, he found his way.
A master at knowing when to spurt and how to squeeze through desperately tight openings, Ohno carried his team to a medal.
“It’s great to be a part of his history,” relay partner Jordan Malone said.
It may not have been the perfect golden moment and Ohno, at 27, isn’t the skater he was in Salt Lake City in 2002. But it was memorable, and as is his custom, it was slick with tension.
“This was the best experience of my life,” Ohno said of these Olympics. “I’ve enjoyed every single moment. For me, it’s not about the medals, it’s about the experience.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to win medals. This medal is very important to me. I train with these guys year-round. They pour their heart and soul into the sport as well. To be able to share this medal with these guys who have worked so hard is a blessing.”
It also might have been the final Olympic race of Ohno’s stellar career. He is contemplating retirement, although U.S. national coach Jimmy Jang is hoping to convince the 27-year-old skater from Seattle to compete in a fourth Olympics in 2014.
Ohno’s legacy can be debated by ring-heads until the next Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. His medals can be measured against Eric Heiden’s and Bonnie Blair’s, and the size of his accomplishment can be diminished by some.
Heiden and Blair are true Olympic legends. In their times, they dominated their sport. Heiden won five gold medals in 1980. Five of Blair’s six medals are gold.
But Ohno is his sport. Without Ohno, short track would get short shrift at the Winter Olympics. It would be nothing more than a niche event, worth a passing mention in the newspapers and a fleet few minutes on television.
“What is important for me is how I perform and how I feel when I come off the ice,” Ohno said. “I gave my all tonight and I’m very, very happy to come back with my No. 8 medal in the relay. Eight is my lucky number. I have it on my skates. Eight is a great number for me.
“I don’t know what else to say. I’ve been kind of emotional all day. It’s been quite the epic journey.”
His accomplishments might not glitter or inspire awe in the same way Heiden’s and Blair’s have, but his staying power in this physically punishing sport and his impact on his sport can’t be questioned.
Of his medals, just two are gold and he won no golds at these Games, but his legacy can’t be measured in gold.
Ohno was his sport’s game-changer. He is the reason people are watching. He is the reason the next generation of American skaters, led by Celski, began competing in the sport.
And probably this was his last race.
“It’s too early to say. I never say never,” Ohno said. “I’m definitely going to take a long break. But this sport has been very good to me.”
That kindness has been reciprocated.