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Showing their mettle

For every Olympic athlete who stands on the medal podium this month in Salt Lake City, there is a trail of former coaches, teachers and neighbors who remember children motivated in their quest to get there.

U.S. Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno’s path winds through Federal Way.

Although Ohno left Federal Way when he was 14 to attend the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., he left a lasting impression on just about everyone who had contact with him.

Ohno goes for the gold medal today in the 1,000 meter finals — and is a favorite to win the 500 and 1,500 later next week.

Ohno grew up in the Colonial Forest neighborhood off First Avenue, but attended Nautilus Elementary School as a student in the Gifted and Talented Education program.

He then attended Saghalie Junior High.

Saghalie principal Carol Eberhardt will be watching and cheering for her former student when he skates tonight.

“I remember he wore a red jacket all the time,” Eberhardt said. “I had quite a few conversations with his dad because his attendence was impacted because he was traveling all over the United States attending skating events. His dad wasn’t excited about doing that. But on the other hand, Apolo was doing real well at these events and his dad was trying to support him out of his own pocket. His dad (Yuki) had a real dilemma.”

It seems like Yuki made the right decision.

Pam Tuggle worked with Ohno in the “Solution Room” at Saghalie Junior High as a behavior intervention counselor.

“He spent lots of time with me because he was in trouble a lot and missed a lot of school,” Tuggle said. “He’s not a bad kid, he just had some negative influences in his circle of friends, a dad that worked all the time and no mom in his life. Any given day he was at school, he would see my face.”

When the school opened in 1994, Ohno attended Saghalie for the seventh grade and was in the honors program, despite often lacking focus and having an extremely high level of energy.

“He used to come into my office, and we’d ask the kids what their immediate goal was to get them back on track,” Tuggle said. “Then we’d talk about their long-term goals. He would always say his goal was to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal. I’d say, ‘That’s great, you’re going to have to discipline yourself and go for it.’ But on the inside, I didn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Let’s hope so, if you don’t end up in jail.’

“Junior high kids always have big goals — when they tell you they’re going to be a professional basketball player or pro football player. Nine times out of 10, you just encourage them but you don’t believe them.”

Ohno missed a lot of school because of competitions, but was smart enough that he could get caught up fairly quickly. Teachers were often frustrated by this because they could see his academic potential. He was a respectful student in one-on-one situations, but was often distracted by being “cool” in groups.

The last time Tuggle saw Ohno was when he was in the eighth grade, just before he left unexpectedly to New York.

“It’s wonderful that he turned things around. It shows me he can focus when he wants to. He always had a determination, it was just about what he was determined to do. I always saw a drive in him, it was just about what he chose to go for. There was never a doubt that it was there.”

About a year after Ohno left Saghalie, someone told Tuggle that Ohno had won a national championship.

“I remember thinking, ‘Maybe this kid is going to go somewhere.’” Tuggle said. “I remember hearing about (the Olympics) and not being one bit surprised. That sounds exactly like what he said he was going to do. I thought, ‘Wow, this is for real. This kid’s really going to make it.’”

Tuggle, now the dean of students at Saghalie, has a TV set up in her office so she can watch Ohno compete at the Olympics.

“To me, he’s very deserving of an honor because he took control of his life, which could have gone a complete opposite direction,” Tuggle said. “A kid will never turn their life around unless they want to. He had to have that desire and want and drive to do it. I’m very proud of him and very excited for him. I’m certainly going to be watching.”

Bob Darrigan has been a neighbor of the Ohnos for more than 10 years at Colonial Forest townhouse and condominium complex off First Avenue in Federal Way.

“You never know what your neighbor may end up being someday,” Darrigan said. “In our community, we have greatness all around us and many of us don’t even know it. It’s important for you to remember to be courteous and kind to your neighbor; if anything, someday they may become famous. ”

Darrigan described Apolo as a very private, polite and courteous young man.

“He was always a very quiet, unobtrusive young man,” Darrigan said. “I don’t know if he has friends, as a matter of fact. He probably does — he’s probably going to have a heck of a lot more.”

“I think it’s marvelous, it’s exciting and I’m just happy for him, particularly for he and his dad. It had to be really tough raising a young man as a single parent. I’m very happy for both of them.

“It’s the perfect example of a single parent doing a great job.”

Just before Ohno left for the Olympic training center when he was 13, he swam with the King County Aquatic Club for six months with coach Jerry Olszewski.

“The kid was an athlete,” Olszewski said. “He was a great swimmer. He was the best swimmer in his age group on our club, and in the Seattle area.”

Ohno finished as a finalist at the regional level, which includes all of the Pacific Northwest.

“He started out as a roller skater, then inline skating, then ice skating. When he went to ice, man, it was really quick and he was out of here. From what he talked about, he was a better skater than swimmer. I was like, ‘Well, if you’re a better skater than swimmer, then you really got something going on.’

“If he would have stayed with swimming, he would have been a national level swimmer, too,” Olszewski said. “He was a competitor. He lived to race.”

Sounds like not much has changed.

“He always had a flair,” Olszewski said “He’s always little on the edge. He looks a little different than everybody else. What you saw on the cover of Sports Illustrated, just looking at the photo, that’s his personality.

The Sports Illustrated cover shows Ohno with a focused look on his face, his lycra speed skating uniform shredded.

“Real competitive, real driven,” Olszewski said. “He walks to his own drummer.”

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