Champions Corner

America's most decorated Winter Olympian spent 8 days in remote cabin alone when he was 15

Apolo Anton Ohno is widely regarded as the Michael Phelps of short track speed skating. Throughout his trio of Olympic appearances, he was the soul-patched, long-haired face of team USA. He medaled eight times, the most of any American in the Winter Olympics. Though now retired, he remains in the spotlight as an Olympian ambassador popping up in the occasional Hershey commercial.

Apolo might not have achieved so much, if not for a lesson his father Yuki taught him. At just 15 years old, his father sent him to spend eight days alone in a remote cabin on the coast of Washington in a heavily wooded place called Iron Springs.

"It was a defining moment in my life," he tells CNBC Make It.

Apolo Anton Ohno of the U.S. holds up eight fingers to signify his tally of Olympic medals after the Men's 5000m Relay Short Track Speed Skating Final at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Matthew Stockman | Getty Images
Apolo Anton Ohno of the U.S. holds up eight fingers to signify his tally of Olympic medals after the Men's 5000m Relay Short Track Speed Skating Final at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

"In 1997, I was No. 1 in the United States. I was 14 years old. Less than a year later, I dropped all the way to dead last at the Olympic trials," he says. He was supposed to win, or at least qualify to compete at the Olympics the following year in Nagano, Japan. But he didn't.

"There was a lack of preparation, lack of effort, lack of dedication, lack of hard work," he says. He describes himself as a bad kid, one who didn't listen, who was anti-authority. "[My father] didn't know what the hell to do," he says. "He didn't want me to have the same conceptual problem... for the rest of my life, meaning he didn't want me to repeat this pattern of going through the motions and expecting good results."

So, Yuki drove his son to the cabin and left, telling Apolo: "You think it over. If speed skating is not what you want to do, I want to know."

There was no television, no phone and, of course, no Internet. "Not much," says Apolo. "It was tough." He spent most of his time journaling and working out. It rained constantly.

When the eight days had passed and Yuki returned to pick up his son, Apolo told him he had made a decision. You, of course, know what that decision was. But Yuki didn't. That wasn't the point. "He didn't ask me," says Apolo.

Yuki is a firm believer in long, powerful life lessons. He's actually a hairstylist by profession (he reportedly cut Apolo's hair until he was 27), though Apolo likes to joke that he's more of a psychologist. At the salon he runs, he apparently spends as much time cutting hair as he does listening to his clients' problems.

His lesson to Apolo in dropping him off at the cabin was not simply to go have him clear his head so he could come back and win the gold, which he did twice. Rather, Yuki wanted him to commit himself one way or the other.

"His point was to teach me that if I'm going to pursue something, I can't half-ass it."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!

Don't miss: 22-year-old Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin has a surprising ritual before races

Video by Jonathan Fazio

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.