Of all the speedskaters, in all the Olympic Games, Apolo Ohno stands apart. He's the one with eight medals, including two golds – making him the most decorated Olympic skater and U.S. Winter Olympian of all time. Consider the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, when Ohno sliced his left leg open, but still managed to crawl across the finish line to capture a silver medal. He then rode to the podium in a wheelchair before getting six stitches to close the gash. Years later, before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Ohno dropped 20 pounds on a strict diet and fitness regimen and boasted that no athlete was more fit than him.
Though he remains the icon of his sport, Ohno, 31, who lives in Los Angeles, is now retired. When the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi on Feb. 7, he'll trade his skates for a sports correspondent gig with NBC. Ohno talked with U.S. News about his diet and how he prepped for competitions mentally, along with his advice for first-time Olympic athletes:
What are the months and weeks leading up to the Olympics like for athletes?
It's usually very interesting because you're in or finishing Olympic trials, and you're in the final prep stage before you face the rest of the world in the hopes of getting a medal at the games. A lot of it is mind preparation, and a lot of it is technical. You're trying to stay healthy. You're not training as hard, but you're still training very intensely – you're just not doing a lot of long training. And from there, it's a lot about the internal battle with yourself: Are you good enough? Have you trained hard enough? All those questions come into your mind, and hopefully you get all those things right so you can answer them right.
How did you get into the right mental mindset to compete so successfully?
I usually trained very hard, so I was confident in my training. From there, it was all about just kind of letting go and knowing there was nothing more I could do – that I had prepared to the absolute best of my ability. And I think that was true. That gave me the internal confidence that I needed to really perform at the highest level. A lot of my confidence came in the fact that I was very prepared, physically and mentally, for the Olympic Games. Had I been slacking off and partying, it would have been a significantly different story. But I was usually pretty good.
Do athletes have much free time at the Olympics? Are you able to get enough sleep?
You get enough sleep, definitely. It just depends what your sport is and how much you're competing. So for short-track speedskating, I was competing in every single event, from the second day all the way into my second-to-last day. My free time was spent relaxing – preparing my mind properly, making sure my equipment was OK, resting and getting ready for the next big day.
And how's the food?
If you're staying in the Olympic Village, you have every single type of food from almost every single culture. It's pretty nice. Obviously the food is very healthy; in Vancouver, they had a lot of organic choices. You can eat 24/7 at the cafeteria, and I've always loved it. I felt very confident I was going to be able to get the right food and get exactly what I needed.
What's your diet like these days, now that you're no longer competing?
It's much more balanced – it's not hardcore or all about performance. I have that leeway to go out to dinner and have some good food with my friends. But if I'm training, and if I'm working out, I put a heavy emphasis on the timing of my nutrition and making sure I get a good combination of carbs and protein. I've always been a big advocate of healthy, active lifestyles.
Speaking of which: How do you stay active these days? Do you still speedskate?
No, it's not something I do for fun. But I try to get a workout in every single day, I really do. Whether it's just straight running or biking or sprints, I try to stay very active.