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Apolo Ohno Set To Take On The Ironman World Championship

Fitter than ever and fired up to tackle Kona, Apolo Ohno is realizing new athletic goals via the swim, bike and run.

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The Winter Olympics speed skating superstar has swapped his blades for a tri bike. Fitter than ever and fired up to tackle Kona, Ohno is realizing new athletic goals via the swim, bike and run. 

Apolo Ohno is best known as an eight-time Olympic medalist in speed skating and a “Dancing With the Stars” mirror ball trophy winner, but his competitive drive is narrowly focused on a new piece of hardware: the Ironman finisher’s medal. And not just any Ironman medal—Ohno has swapped the frozen track for the lava fields of Kailua-Kona.

“Nothing will ever replace what I did in short track—the 40 seconds of pure mayhem that I used to train for—but I love triathlon because I’m so out of my comfort zone,” says Ohno, 32, the most decorated American winter athlete of all time. “I couldn’t have asked for a more different sport to provide a challenge and require me to adapt and do things I never thought my body was designed to do, especially from an endurance perspective.”

Ohno follows football star Hines Ward as the celebrity athlete at the center of the Built With Chocolate Milk campaign, in which triathlon’s top professionals and coach Paula Newby-Fraser, an eight-time Ironman world champion, take a star athlete with no triathlon background and prep him for the prestigious and grueling Ironman World Championship.

Although Ohno swam competitively until he was 12, the cycling training—not to mention the puzzle of putting all three disciplines together—is completely new to him. “It’s been something that I’ve needed in my life since I retired four years ago,” says Ohno, who fits in training from his Southern California home base between international travels to places like Dubai and China. “Why triathlon? Because I have the chance to do three sports instead of just one. Why now? I’ve done other challenges but nothing that was so beyond what my sport was.” Ohno says he’s done his share of Crossfit and UFC training, but that he needed something that was going to push his body to the absolute limit. “Being able to have the opportunity to compete in the most coveted endurance race in the world is something you can’t pass up,” he says.

The idea of making the journey from multisport newbie to Kona finisher as cameras rolled was another draw. “Showing the transformation, how you feel, what it’s like—you’re humanizing it and showing that it’s possible for anybody,” Ohno says. “That’s the beauty of triathlon and the Ironman—the race is won during the preparation stage. It’s those days, weeks, months of preparing. There’s something really amazing about going out there and just flogging yourself at 100 percent, to be the best that you can be. It builds character and teaches life lessons.”

Ohno learned triathlon lessons the hard way at Ironman 70.3 Boise, his first triathlon, this past June when he ignored his coach’s carefully prescribed race plan. “Paula gave me parameters for the race, and told me to be focused on my own race and not worry about anyone else,” recalls Ohno. “But as soon as I got in the water that all went out the window. I swam as hard as I possibly could, zigzagged my way through the swim, then flogged myself on the bike so when I got to the run there was nothing left. It was a big lesson learned.” Still he managed a very respectable sub-five-hour half-Ironman (4:59:27).

The other lesson learned: He needed to lose weight. “I’ve put on my retirement pounds—I love food, but to perform at the level of Kona the fat tire’s gotta go!” says Ohno, who targeted a weight loss goal of 15–20 pounds. “I love it because it’s forcing me to get back in awesome shape, and I know that I’ll show up in Kona fit and ready to race.”

RELATED VIDEO: Apolo Ohno Races Ironman 70.3 Boise

When Ohno first started triathlon training he was eating whatever he wanted in whatever quantities he wanted, but those habits quickly changed. “Now I’m much more conscious of what I’m actually eating and the timing of what I’m getting in my body,” he explains. “As any triathlete will tell you, recovery is the most important part of your training. You can’t train hard the next day if you’re not fully recovered. Chocolate milk has been a big component and partner, and we always have that on hand. I also try to eat foods that are anti-inflammatory and alkaline- and pH-balancing, and also give the right blend of carbohydrate, protein and fat that I need to perform athletically.”

Years of explosive speedwork training as a sprinter in short track has helped him find his bicycling legs, says Ohno. “My leg strength from short track definitely helps on the bike, but the issue there is that I’m very powerful for a short amount of time, and I’m used to receiving a lot more rest before I do another round,” he says. “Being an endurance athlete, you don’t get a rest! You keep going in a painful state. But [my athletic experience] allows me to have the same tenacity, focus, drive and mentality I need to consistently put in strong training work day after day.”

He also gets a little help from his new friends and mentors: pro Luke McKenzie and three-time Ironman world champion Craig “Crowie” Alexander. “Before Boise, Crowie said to me, ‘It’s going to tickle a little bit.’ I told him, ‘I don’t know if “tickle” is the appropriate word to describe it!’ But I’m really enjoying it. I’ve always had respect for triathletes because I was around them at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I saw the volume of training, the consistency and was just in awe of what they did. Now I have even more respect for triathletes.”

Newby-Fraser sends Ohno a schedule each week, outlining the goals and initiatives of each workout. When his schedule permits, he travels to San Diego to train near his coach, and he hopes to fit in at least one training camp in Hawaii before the October race. His two main training focuses are the run—what he feels is his weakest discipline (although he’s run a 3:25 marathon, at the 2011 New York City Marathon)—and acclimating to hot and humid conditions. “I spend a lot of time in SoCal—it’s 75, dry and breezy, not exactly Kona weather.”

Ohno doesn’t plan on dismissing his triathlon dreams after crossing the Ali’i Drive finish line. In fact, he says he can’t imagine not living the multisport lifestyle.

“The community of triathletes is amazing—everyone has been so welcoming,” he says. “It’s really refreshing to see, and I’d like to do more triathlons after Kona.”

Call it an itch—or even a tickle—we understand just what he means.

Follow Ohno’s journey to the Big Island in “Mission Apolo.”