The Apolo Ohno Short Track Speedskating Invitational

The Apolo Ohno Short Track Speedskating Invitational

If you’ve ever watched a short track speedskating meet live, you’ve experienced the edge-of-your-seat excitement that takes place during a race: the tight packs of athletes racing neck and neck. The calculated accelerations and short bursts of speed to pass opponents around those tight corners. And, of course, the collisions that take place when passing doesn’t go so well—part of the reason short track speed skating has been dubbed “NASCAR on ice”. Let’s face it: it’s the collisions and the unpredictability of the sport that make short track speedskating so exciting to watch. But what if there was a way to make short track even more spectator-friendly? What if you could condense a meet down to two hours, add music and lights, and prize money for the winners? And what if the event was hosted by the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, Apolo Ohno? Combine all of these elements together, and you have the Apolo Ohno Invitational.

What is the Apolo Ohno Invitational?

For those who have never been to the Apolo Ohno Invitational, it combines the most exciting elements of short track and creates a more entertaining event for spectators. Marion Wohlrab, the Events and Programs Director for US Speedskating, says, “The Apolo Ohno Inivitational is a showcase event. The goal is to showcase short track speed skating in a little more condensed format than a normal World Cup. We invite only four teams, including the U.S., and only four ladies and four guys [per team]. And the main show is only a semi-final and a final. So we’re kind of short-cutting the process a little bit, and showing the most exciting races. We brief the athletes beforehand, so everyone knows what it’s about. It’s about entertaining spectators.”

Ted Morris, the Executive Director for US Speedskating, adds, “The purpose of the Apolo Ohno Invitational is to show short track speedskating in a highly entertaining manner behind the sport’s biggest star. We want to leverage those two things to show the sport a little differently than it’s shown at the World Cup and…at the Olympics. Short track is an extreme sport, but it’s never been positioned that way. And so that’s what we’re attempting to do.”

The Mixed Relay and More Apolo

There are a few features of the Invitational this year that will be different from last year. Ted says, “This year, we’ve got a band, which we think will be great. I think that’s a big part of what was missing last year, and is missing in any of the World Cup events—even the Olympics. We want to connect that entertainment element to it. Also, last year we were an hour delayed on the NBC Sports Network, and because of that, we were on a very tight schedule. So Apolo had less opportunity to be interactive with the crowd. This year, you’ll see Apolo engaging more with the crowd throughout the night.”

Another new element this year is the mixed relay. Marion says, “Something we’re trying out this year is a mixed relay—basically a relay where you have two guys and two girls from each nation forming a team, and then they race against the others. A lot of winter sports are kind of pioneering this. They had a mixed relay in biathlon, and they do it in cross country skiing. They even do a team event in bobsled now, where they count the ladies and men together. So that’s one of the things we’re going to try out this year.” 

The Special Olympics Component

Another unique feature of the Apolo Ohno Invitational is its connection with the Special Olympics. Marion says, “Apolo has been working with the Special Olympics Movement for quite a while, and he was the driving force in this. He approached us last year and asked if we could include Special Olympics Athletes. They showed interest, so we said, ‘Sure.’ Last year, it was pulled together in a very short amount of time. But this year, we’ve done a little more planning. On the day before the event, we’re going to have a clinic. Apolo’s coming out and will do a training session with the Special Olympics Athletes, and some of the club kids.

“And then we’ll integrate the Special Olympics Athletes in part of the show. They’re going to do an A and B final 500m race. And then they’ll do a unified relay, which is compiled of two Special Olympians, and two of our skaters. And they’ll race together. It’s about integration and just working together. I think it’s a great relationship.”

Watch it Live or on TV

The Invitational takes place Friday, November 13th at 7:00 p.m. Marion says, “I think in short track, to really experience the speed they’re going at, you have to be there. You know, if you see people falling on TV, it looks bad. [But] if you see them falling in real life, and the amount of impact those athletes actually have when they fall…they’re going close to 40 MPH, with a falling zone of maybe five or six yards. And then they crash into a wall. It’s like a car accident right there, minus the air bag. So just the pure essence of the sport is [much] better experienced when you’re actually there.” However, if you can’t be there to watch it live, you can also watch it from the comfort of your own home. The Invitational will be televised on NBC Sports Network on Friday, Nov. 27th at 7:00 p.m. MST.

Long-Term Goals

As far as long-term goals for the Invitational, both Ted and Marion hope it will raise the overall popularity of speedskating. Marion says, “If you look at old footage from the 50’s and 60’s, there are speedskating events where you have, like, 15,000 people lining up on the lake [to watch] races. Today, spectators have it easy. It’s nice and warm indoors, and they get [to watch] with a hot dog, and a Coke or a beer.” She says that in five years, she’d love to see the Invitational “hosted somewhere in a big arena where we have five or six thousand spectators wanting to watch short track speedskaters. In ten years, the ideal, or the vision of mine, would be hosting it at Madison Square Garden, and we have 25,000 spectators. And it’s a two hour-long, spectacular show—a live broadcast on TV, and our TV rating is shooting through the roof.”

Ted adds, “One of the long-term goals for the event is to start turning it into a revenue-generating property, and I think we can do that in this type of format. We also [want to] grow the popularity of the sport—create a property that gets television networks, specifically NBC, excited. We want to showcase Apolo, and the sport, and our team.”

*Special thanks to Michelle Eshenour for image of Derek Eshenour and Apolo.

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