In fractions of a second, an Olympic speed skater can break world records. Imagine what he can do in, say, a full day. Lately, here’s how reigning world men’s short track champ Apolo Ohno typically spends his, starting at 5:30 a.m.: “Eat, train, dance rehearsal,” he says. “Then eat, train for my sport, eat again and dance training again.” For as long as he remains on the show, Ohno will keep up this pace as he simultaneously chases skating and Dancing with the Stars titles—five hours a day of dancing, six of skating. He can forget, however, his optimum eight hours of sleep. He yawns and admits, “Last night I got three.”
He isn’t the first pro athlete to take to the Dancing floor, but he is the first who didn’t have to come out of retirement to do it. Ohno carries a full schedule of meets, with the hope of competing in a third Olympics in 2010. (He also makes time for some extracurriculars: Yes, that’s him, the hot guy with the headband in the Gap’s Product (Red) campaign.) Last month Ohno, 24, won a gold and four bronze medals at the world championships in Milan. Eight days later he and partner Julianne Hough executed the cha cha to raves. “He’s solid,” says Joey Fatone of his rival. “He tries hard and has fun with it—you can see it.”
Initially Ohno’s biggest challenges were merely standing up straight and moving, with some semblance of grace, to his right. “I’ve molded my body into this shape for the past 12 years of my life,” Ohno says of the crouched position and constant left turns he takes to round the ice track. “So my posture has been a big deal.”
Also new to him is the notion of being judged on appearance. “In my sport performance is based on how I finish in the race, not how I ‘wow’ an audience,” he notes. On TV, “if I can emotionally pull the people watching into the dance, we have a winner!”
He does, however, draw the line when it comes to ballroom fashion. Despite sporting the body-hugging “aerodynamic” skin suits speed skaters favor, he says, “I’m not wearing those belly-baring V-neck things and I’m not going to wear ruffles and I will try to stay away from sequins if at all possible.”
Though he and partner Hough seem to come from different worlds (she loves sequins), the duo are definitely in step. “At an early age, we both moved away from home” to pursue their fields, he says. At 14, he left Seattle to skate in Lake Placid, N.Y. In 2002 Ohno took a gold and a silver medal at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Four years later, he won a gold and two bronzes in Turin.
All the time Apolo had the support of his father, Yuki Ohno, a Japanese-born hair salon owner who raised the boy alone after a divorce from Apolo’s mom when he was a year old. He’s all in favor of his son’s latest pursuit. “My dad saw the dress rehearsal and was calling everybody, going, ‘It’s amazing! Apolo can really dance!'”
Less thrilled are Ohno’s skating coaches. “They want to see me training year-round,” says Ohno, who thinks his turn on Dancing will actually raise his sport’s profile: “In a non-Olympic year, showcasing an Olympic athlete on a show that has millions of viewers—it’s never heard of.” It has clearly raised his profile with certain smitten fans. They’ll be happy to learn Ohno is single but mostly because he doesn’t have time to date. When he does pencil the right girl in, she “has got to be athletic or at least into fitness, have a sense of humor,” he says.
Having “accomplished everything I’ve ever wanted to” as an athlete, Ohno says the 2010 Olympics will likely be his last. But he doesn’t want to miss it. “The Games are sacrifice, heartbreak, drama—everything that reality shows try to capture,” he says. “Maybe I should make my own reality show about that?”