Apolo Ohno Retired From Speed Skating With No Idea What to Do Next. Here’s What He Learned About How to Embrace Change and Find Purpose—No Matter Your Age

by MEGHAN RABBITT

For the most decorated winter Olympics athlete of all time, you’d think a hyper-focus on winning gold medals would be the name of the game. After all, you don’t take home 21 World Championship medals and eight Olympic medals—not to mention the season four Dancing With the Stars mirror ball trophy—without a one-track mind to win, right?

At one point in his career, Apolo Ohno may have agreed with that statement. Yet as he writes in his new book, Hard Pivot, one of his most hard-won insights has become valuing the process over the prize—a lesson that has not only helped him get clearer on what he wants out of life, but what life wants out of him.

“After my final Olympics, I felt confused, vulnerable, and adrift without purpose,” says Ohno. “Yet that’s when I realized my experiences had given me something much more valuable than medals and memories. I had tools I could use to shift my life in a new direction—and most importantly, these were tools anyone could benefit from.”

We sat down with Ohno to get his best advice for those of us examining our lives—whether our jobs, relationships, or friendships were changed by the global pandemic or we’re looking to turn the page on a new chapter for whatever reason. His insights and practical guidance on how to find a new sense of purpose and show up in a more intentional, authentic way for ourselves and others helped us feel ready for whatever is next.

 

A Conversation with Apolo Ohno

After an incredible career as an athlete, you were faced with the question, “What now?” What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for those of us going through what you call “The Great Divorce” from an old identity that once defined us?

First and foremost, there needs to be a process in which we identify, What is the next path? And what’s most important to us—what’s really at the core—as we navigate that path?

There are so many distractions and pulls that highjack your attention and say, This is how you should be, what you should have. The only real truth is this: What’s most important to you as you navigate through life?

A part of the process I go back to is the idea of self-acceptance. Because without understanding what’s happening on the inside, it’s difficult to change what’s on the outside. I struggled with this for many years, during my speed skating career and after. How can I look in the mirror and accept Apolo for all of his shortcomings? How can I see all of the things that held me back and use them as leverage to move me forward? How can I have more love for that person in the mirror?

Many of us are thrown out of the nest many times. To be fully alive, you need to be thrown out of the nest many times! We are handcuffed to this idea of routine and comfort because those things signal safety and security. But the reality is that the human experience has always meant adapting and embracing change in ways that help us grow beyond what we thought possible. Knowing this makes it more acceptable to say, Here’s where I am and here’s where I intend to go.

The title of your book is “Hard Pivot”—a speed skating term. You write about how the thousands of hours you spent practicing hard pivots prepared you for your life’s next act. Can you share a little more about that?

A hard pivot in speed skating is when you’re hurtling down the straightaway on the ice in a self-propelled sport and you’re reaching the corner where you need to lean over at an impossible angle, carry that turn on one leg, and then whip around the corner in the complete opposite direction without slowing down as you hurdle down to the next corner. Improperly executed, it’s painful and hurts and sometimes you fall with others. If that happens, you can either stay down or pick yourself back up and continue on the path.

In life, it’s the same thing. As we go through life’s hard pivots, we often believe we are deserving of a different result—something else was meant to be ours. But the universe, the world, God, they have their own plans at times that may not seem to make sense to you. The more we can embrace these things as part of the series of chapters of our lives, the better. Some chapters are hard and rough; they’ll callus your body and mind. But the beauty is that we can do those hard things. I love the saying “Good timber doesn’t grow with ease, the stronger wind the stronger trees.”

It’s often hard to see how you’re going to break through a hard pivot. You’ve done something your entire life; you think it’s what you’re good at, what you have experience doing. You may not believe you can do anything else. Yet the reality is the human body, mind, and spirit is so resilient and adaptable; you need to allow the adaptation to happen.

We often don’t pursue what we’re excited about because of fear. I believe that’s where we have to stick to our internal true north. Hard pivots will be fraught with challenges and falls, and that’s OK. That’s part of the process, in fact. The more we can embrace the process over the prize, it changes everything.

You write about what you call “the five golden principles” for anyone looking to reinvent themselves: gratitude, giving, grit, gearing up, and go. I’d love to hear about how this framework kept you going in the right direction during your own reinvention.

These are elements I’ve seen extrapolated from people I’ve come in contact with the last 30 years—athletes, artists, business people. People who’ve lived a great life. What I learned is that gratitude keeps you grounded and giving is irreplaceable; something changes when you give your time and energy to someone or something. Grit is a prerequisite for living life: It’s going to be hard at times, and you have the ability to do those hard things. Gearing up is how you set expectations, knowing the road will be challenging but lighting the fire within yourself anyway. And “go” is the antidote to paralysis by perfectionism. Just do it; don’t give the other voices in your head a vote.

We often paralyze ourselves and stay in the strongest prison on the planet: the one between our own two ears. We’re so worried about what might happen. These principles help us break free from that worry and make change happen anyway.

In your first Olympics, there was a devastating collision that occurred less than 100 feet from the finish line and despite leading the pack the entire race, you crashed—then lunged across the finish line and won the silver. When a reporter asked you “What was it like to lose the gold?” you responded, “I didn’t lose the gold, I won the silver.” How has this attitude helped you—and how can the rest of us take that incredible view when we don’t get exactly what we want?

That was my favorite Olympic medal, even though it was the silver. That’s partially because I believed I was the champion, and for a split second I felt it was taken from me unfairly and unjustly.

I could’ve stayed in a stew of bitterness for the rest of my life, blaming the athlete who fell into me. Or, I could embrace the outcome and find some silver lining. I could say, “Look at what it showed me. I’m going to celebrate the silver as if it’s gold.”

You can prepare for a lifetime and not get what you want. How you respond to that is within your control.

I urge people to realize this: You may not get what you want. That’s OK. Recalibrate, then go out there on the attack and work toward something that’ll give you the most amount of gratification. Your other option is to stay handcuffed to a results-based mentality and only be happy if you get what you want. But life doesn’t work that way.

What would you say to those who are a bit older and wanting to pivot?

Your only limitations are that within your mind. Now, you’re not going to make it to the Olympics as a speed skater at age 60. But when it comes to the things you want to do, your brain is elastic and can learn new things and absorb new information. But you have to turn the inner light switch on.

Change is difficult. But when we understand why it’s so tough, we can break free from limited thinking. Change gives us a chance to grow, to stretch, and to push ourselves in ways we didn’t think we could before. Remember, we as humans crave progress, in every essence of what progress means.

Apolo Anton Ohno is an eight-Olympic-medal champion and the most decorated US Winter Olympian of all time. Today he is a cross-industry entrepreneur, sports broadcaster, television personality, and New York Times bestselling author. Ohno focuses on reinvention and harnessing his experiences to educate and inspire others. For more, visit apoloohno.com and order his book, Hard Pivot, here.

MEGHAN RABBITT

Meghan Rabbitt is an editor at The Sunday Paper, and a writer and editorial strategist whose work is published in national magazines and websites. You can learn more about Meghan and read her work here.

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