Speed skater Apolo Ohno is the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time. He’s earned a total of eight Olympic medals—two gold, two silver, and four bronze—in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Olympic Games.

Since retiring from Olympic competition, he’s become an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, sports broadcaster, television personality, and New York Times best-selling author.

Earlier this year, Sounds True published his latest book, Hard Pivot, about how to use tools such as mindfulness and meditation to reinvent yourself in times of uncertainty and hardship.

Here, he talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about why the fastest man on ice now advocates slowing life way down.

Katy Koontz: In your latest book, you describe what you call the five golden principles: gratitude, giving, grit, gearing up, and go (my personal favorite). How did you come to identify these principles?

Apolo Ohno: I was very curious about how people who had become some of the greatest success stories in modern times had lived their lives—how they dealt with change, how they dealt with fear, and how they dealt with these internal conversations of I’m not good enough or feeling paralyzed by what could happen.

I also drew from my own experiences in sports, looking back at why I was successful in certain areas of my life and why I failed or stumbled in other areas. I wondered if there was a correlation between what I was seeing others do and what I did myself.

I was curious about all that because I was interested in seeing if there were behavioral patterns common to most humans, and if so, whether we can learn to break those patterns that limit us.

I wanted to know if the patterns were something that were self-inflicted because of the way our own conditioning works, or if they were just the way the world has taught us that we should or should not behave.

I ended up distilling some really helpful, tactical, tool kit guidance that the greatest performers from sports, the military, and other areas have been able to implement. And when you zoom out, you realize that all of us have this ability—we just have to know how to turn that switch on.

So to help people do that, I created this easy-to-use module based on those foundational principles that are important to implement on a daily basis. I called them the five golden principles.

KK: Can you give a quick rundown?

AO: Sure. Gratitude leads to having perspective and empathy.

Giving allows us to transcend the ego through selfless service.

Grit is about having the resilience and perseverance to help us get through the toughest times to a place of greater strength.

Gearing up is preparing mentally and physically for the challenges we face in life so we can rise to the occasion.

And go is just that: taking action, even when there’s a very real risk we might fail, and then if we fall short, getting back up and trying again.

Breaking Fear of Fear, Apolo Ohno

KK: How do risk and fear fit into this equation?

AO: Everything we do in life has varying degrees of risk associated with it.

For example, pursuing a career in short track speed skating is perhaps one of the riskiest things in the world, right? You’ve prepared for 12 to 15 years of your life for this one single race that lasts 40 seconds—and on that day, thousands of things could happen that are out of your control, and the likelihood of you winning is .001 percent.

So if you’re marrying your idea of risk and reward associated only with the end result, it’s a recipe for disaster. The trick is to figure out how to neurochemically reward yourself throughout the process versus with the actual prize, although the prize is still important because we need to be able to see the target.

Now if I reverse engineer the steps I need to take on a consistent basis to give me the best possible chance of success, that’s different.

The fear mechanism in our heads is trying to keep us safe. It’s been embedded over millions of years of evolution to help us find food and water in environments that might be dangerous. Even though now we live in a modern society, we haven’t lost the survival mechanism that kicks in when we’re in unfamiliar and even chaotic environments.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt just make us want to go back to what is normal—our existing routine—to keep us safe. But then we never break free to actually grow.

We need to push beyond those feelings so we can callus the mind. Just like I have calluses on my hands from lifting weights, my body can build up a mental callus, the resiliency to protect itself so I can do more the next time around.

We can fortify our mind, spirit, and soul in a very similar fashion, but it’s going to take consistent effort. You may not succeed on the first try, but trying again and again will eventually establish a new habit.

KK: I have a teacher who says a little fear can be a good thing—it ensures you pay attention and take the situation seriously.

AO: Yes, it means you care. Fear can be something that keeps you highly alert, hyper-focused, and very dynamic. It’s beneficial as long as you keep it from paralyzing you or handcuffing you to the same path.

Of course, you can stay on that path, but if you want to go down a different path, you will need to face that fear in some capacity.

One of my favorite authors, Frank Herbert, wrote in Dune: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

To me, that makes a lot of sense.

KK: I like the way that creates some separation from the emotion.

AO: I also like a quote ascribed to Mark Twain that says, “I have lived a long life and have had many troubles, most of which have never happened.” That’s the human experience, to live in that perpetual state of worry and fear. We have to break free from that if we’re going to grow.

I make sure I find a way to feel gratitude then, as well. This allows me to slow time down and be present and grateful for right now, even though I’m living in a fast-paced world.

KK: In your book, you recommend journaling. What does your journaling practice look like?

AO: The most important part of journaling is to do it in a way that’s sustainable. It’s not powerful if you do it only once a week or once a month. You need to find a pattern and a rhythm that allows you to journal every day.

My journaling starts in the morning with a practice of gratitude, followed by setting my intentions for the day—identifying some tasks and priorities that I need and want to accomplish and that would make the day great even if everything else fails.

Then I list the attributes or skills that I believe I have or that I want to improve upon.

Then at the end of the day, I do a review. I ask myself, How did today go? What went well? What didn’t go well? What did you learn?

I make sure I find a way to feel gratitude then, as well. This allows me to slow time down and be present and grateful for right now, even though I’m living in a fast-paced world.

At least five minutes of this practice in the morning and five minutes in the evening seems to be something I can do consistently without fail.

KK: What kind of meditation do you do?

AO: Every morning I do some sort of seated meditation where I take an inventory top-down, from my head to my neck and shoulders and on down my body.

I feel the relaxation, and then I transition to focusing on my breath. I concentrate on the way that I’m breathing, in through my nose, out through my mouth, in this slow and controlled movement.

It’s as if there’s a candle in front of me, and while I’m not trying to blow the flame out, I’m making the flame dance.

After a while, I’m almost in this trancelike state—I did this a lot when I trained for the Olympics. Even though my mind is thinking about all the thousands of things I want to do, telling me that this is not the time to meditate and that I can do that later, I tell it, No, you’re here; do it now. I’m aiming for an ease of being in that moment.

Most days it’s great, but some days it feels impossible. When that happens, one minute can feel like an hour.

Finally, I have a sauna that I use seven days a week. That’s another place where I just breathe and slow time down.

KK: You write that intention is less about what you want to do that day and more about how you want to do it. Can you elaborate?

AO: Being present in everything that we do is critical. As neuroscience shows, the less present we are, the less we will be able to remember what’s actually happening. Because of the acceleration of technology, we’re all managing inbound pings that come at us a thousand miles an hour.

So for example, when you talk to someone about something they experienced in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, or even the 2000s, they really remember those moments, almost with granular detail. But people today can’t remember things that happened last week, and that’s because we all have overloaded circuitry.

I’m not saying cell phones and technology are bad, but this is what’s happening. It’s a reminder that we need to bring our attention back to center, back to where we are here and now.

KK: And of course you have to be aware you’re not in the present moment before you can bring yourself back to it. Many of us don’t even know when we’re not present.

AO: Yes, that’s correct. 

KK: Much of your book talks about battling negative self-talk, which is a challenge for so many of us. What’s the secret for overcoming that?

AO: You first need to recognize how you’re behaving and reacting in a certain situation and why you’re doing that so you can counteract anything negative. Then write down how instead of reacting you might have responded differently.

I suggest articulating that on a piece of paper. In my opinion, the physical, tactile nature of writing makes it much more embedded. The key is to give yourself a little bit more of a breather to actually let what happened sink in, which takes practice.

Having what the Buddhists call a beginner’s mind is a part of that process. For me, it’s a game changer.

Like everything else, it comes with time and consistency. The brain needs to have that repetition of practice to break the cycle of the previously conditioned habit of responding in a negative fashion or of automatically being in a fear state.

For example, I recently asked a friend who went to the Grand Prix in Miami what he thought of his experience there. He started telling me that it was too hot, that this was wrong, and that was wrong.

So I said, “Hey, I just want to bring your attention to what’s happening right now. You are one of a relatively small group of people in the world who had the opportunity to go to this event, and your first response when I asked you about it was to complain about what bothered you. I just want you to stop for a second and reframe.

“Now answer the same question again, but talk only about the things that were new and exciting for you.

“Start with that, because we’re always looking for certain things that aren’t perfect, but nothing is ever going to be truly perfect.”

KK: I love that reframing practice. That’s a brilliant idea!

AO: We’re always seeking to improve our experience or our performance, but life to me is a game of strengths. You don’t want to be living your life perpetually looking for weaknesses.

We do that with our relationships, with our work, with everything. But by doing that, we’re basically capping our experience—detracting from how fun this could be.

Having what the Buddhists call a beginner’s mind is a part of that process. For me, it’s a game changer.

KK: You also write about the importance of curiosity in transformation and successfully navigating change. How does being curious help that?

AO: The concept is just to have a childlike mentality, play with your thoughts, have beginner’s mind, as I just mentioned. I want to make it clear that I have not mastered these things myself yet. I have just been able to observe them, and observing them helps me live life from a different perspective.

It’s so easy to complain about things, and I fall victim to that just like everyone else, but again, having a childlike quality can put an interesting spin on things.

I’ll give another example. A business associate and I were at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago. I had been to that event before, a while ago, but my associate had not. During the evening as we were talking, I found myself comparing this year’s event to the last time I was there. As I was going to sleep that night, I thought to myself, Apolo, you spent a large portion of your time tonight comparing something to something else, when it doesn’t even matter. You should just be there in the moment living it as if this was your first experience of the event.

KK: You wrote in your book that pivots are just arbitrary turns, unless they have a purpose. But what about serendipity? Doesn’t that have a place too?

AO: Serendipity happens only when your eyes are open to it and you are able to appreciate those moments.

If you’re living your life in a closed mindset, in a way that is turned off to change and growth, you’re not going to see them—and they’re some of the most exciting and powerful moments we ever have in our lives.

Apolo Ohno claimed his first major speed skating title at the U.S. Championships when he was only 14. He went on to compete in three Olympics before retiring from the sport at 27, after the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the best-selling book Zero Regrets (Atria, 2010) and the new book Hard Pivot (Sounds True, 2022). Visit apoloohno.com.

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

About the Author

Katy Koontz is the editor in chief of Unity Magazine.


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