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Mission accomplished

In short, Ohno is skating for love of the sport

American speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno has his sights set on two more medals tonight at the Pacific Coliseum. American speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno has his sights set on two more medals tonight at the Pacific Coliseum. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 26, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - It stopped being about the medals a long time ago. Apolo Anton Ohno already had five from his two previous trips to Olympus.

“I’ve accomplished every single thing I’ve ever wanted to do in the sport,’’ America’s most decorated winter athlete had said before these Games began. “So for me, I have a sense of calm, I feel very good with where I’m at. I’m doing this sport, period, because, I love it.’’

Yet the medals have kept coming here - a silver in the 1,500 meters and a bronze in the 1,000. Tonight at the Pacific Coliseum, Ohno has an excellent chance at two more - in the 500, where he’s the defending champion, and in the 5,000 relay, where the US made the podium four years ago in Turin.

Ohno could win two golds, running his career total to four. Or he might get disqualified, step on a rubber block and go down or click skates with a rival and go sliding into the wall. “Short-track isn’t a sport where you can make predictions,’’ Ohno said. “It just doesn’t happen.’’

What makes short-track different from the long-track version is the element of random chance. In long-track, where skaters race in pairs against the clock, the medals usually run close to form. In short-track, there is no form. The worst man with the best luck can win.

“Our sport is so unforgiving in the sense that you can train for years for a 40-second race, you have one slip and you go from first to last,’’ said the 27-year-old Ohno. “It makes it very bittersweet, but it also teaches you life lessons that are kind of real and instantaneous. Nothing is guaranteed.’’

Ohno’s first medal came in 2002 in the most bizarre short-track race in Olympic history, when Australia’s Steven Bradbury, who forever will be known as the Last Man Standing, won the gold in the 1,000 when the four men ahead of him all went down in the final turn. Ohno, crawling on his hands and knees with a lacerated thigh, salvaged the silver. Then Ohno won his first gold in the 1,500 after South Korea’s Kim Dong Sung was disqualified for interfering with Ohno by “cross-tracking.’’

In 2006 in Turin, Ohno made the final in the 500 after a Chinese three-time world champion was disqualified for impeding, then took the gold by catching a flyer after two false starts. “I’ve been searching my entire career for the perfect race,’’ Ohno declared, “and that was it.’’ Here, he claimed the silver in the 1,500 after one of the three Koreans ahead of him wiped out another. No explanations, no apologies needed. “That’s short-track,’’ as the skaters themselves say with a shrug.

Ohno learned that the hard way at 15 when he came into the US trials for the 1998 team seeded first and finished dead last. “It was a devastating moment for me,’’ he acknowledged. “I was meant to make that team. But looking back, it was the best thing to have happened to me. It was one of the turning points in my career.’’

Since then, Ohno has become an icon of consistency in a sport where consistent results are difficult to achieve. Eric Heiden, who won a record five gold medals in long-track in 1980 in Lake Placid, competed in only one Games. Ohno now has taken the line for 10 races at three Games and won medals in seven. If he makes both podiums tonight, he’ll have a .750 lifetime percentage.

If Olympus were Vegas, the man would have a roulette table named after him by now. Nobody is better at beating the odds over time, yet Ohno has developed a Zen acceptance of victory and defeat. “Whether I win or lose is out of control to me,’’ he said. “If it’s my day to win, then it’s my day. If it’s not, then I’ll be the first one to congratulate the guy who did win.’’

Ohno could have called it a career after Turin, and he did take nearly a year off to ponder whether he wanted to continue. What brought him back, he said, was not the challenge of surpassing Bonnie Blair as the most bemedaled American but of surpassing himself.

“When I was making those decisions of whether I want to skate or not, all my memories were never of me standing on the podium, they were never of me winning a race,’’ said Ohno. “They were always of me preparing for something. And that’s what I enjoy, that own-self internal conflict, that own-self challenge of just becoming better and trying to perfect something.’’

What Ohno has perfected is the art of snatching whatever medal might be available to him on a given night. He will sit back patiently for several laps, then boldly dart through to daylight. He can sense when a pileup is imminent and slip past the wreckage like a stock car driver threading his way through a crash at Daytona. And he knows how to sucker an opponent into a DQ as he did Kim in Salt Lake City.

Ohno has been at this game for so long he’s competing against skaters mentored by his former rivals.

“Every time I pass by the heat box I look at all the coaches and I’m like, ‘I skated against you, you, you. I skated against all you guys,’ ’’ he said. “But now they’re coaching athletes to beat me. So, it feels good that I’ve been able to stay in a sport that totally changes every two years and many, many athletes get left behind.’’

Ohno’s medal haul - two golds, two silvers, three bronzes - has been due as much to longevity as consistency, but he said he wasn’t thinking of a career record when he took the line here for the 1,000. “It wasn’t until I crossed the line that I was like, ‘Oh, how about that?’ ’’ said Ohno, who dashed out of last place to take third.

He didn’t go looking for a bottle of champagne to pop to celebrate passing Blair. “Every day I’m here,’’ he said, “I feel like I’m celebrating.’’ The Old Lion, as his father Yuki calls him, still has another couple of chances to roar. If Ohno wins another two medals, he’ll be only three short of the Winter Games career record of 12 set by Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie (eight gold, four silver) and he hasn’t ruled out a trip to Sochi in 2014.

But whenever he calls it a career, tonight or four years from now, the Old Lion said he wants to fulfill the vow he made to himself before he arrived here. “I’d like to cross the finish line in my last race,’’ Ohno said, “and have absolutely no regrets.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.