Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno talks mental health: 'Sharing my own self doubts is humanizing and important'

Olympic great Apolo Ohno uses breathing to control his stress. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Olympic great Apolo Ohno uses breathing to control his stress. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Retired Olympic short track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno has always had his eye on the prize. Raised by a single Japanese father in Washington, he competed in three Olympics — picking up eight Olympic medals (two gold, two silver, four bronze) along the way — and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2019. While his skates are on display at the Smithsonian, Ohno, now nearing his fourth decade, has reinvented himself and made a hard pivot into the world of business, with his eye on financial success and wellness.

Ohno is an advocate for Personal Capital as their next Financial Hero and wants to help people build healthy daily financial routines, which he sees as an important component of overall health. He also has a new book coming out in 2022: Hard Pivot, which documents the struggles and uncertainty faced in his journey as a businessman.

We caught up with Ohno in July, ahead of the games, to talk about how he handles stress and achieves financial wellness — and why you might catch him doing squats on an airplane.

I read that you recently reached out to Naomi Osaka to lend support. Have you reached out to any Olympic athletes ahead of the games?

I have [but] I won't mention names. The more and more we destigmatize the associations around mental health, and what we thought of as weak... It's no longer acceptable. We see the negative consequences and the strength it brings to those who are willing to talk about their struggles. As someone who optically has been seen by other athletes as someone who’s always happy, sharing my own self doubts is humanizing and important. Regardless of your economic status or athletic status, the human mind is still the most powerful asset in the world.

How do you think professional sports should handle mental health?

Until recently, we lived in an archaic world where as long as you could perform, no one questioned if you were OK. I think there needs to be not only resources and time spent, but also conversation. I’d like to be involved by supporting organizations that are trying to scale solutions around mental health. The athletes are just one part of this, by the way.

What’s your approach to mental health?

I think about it as these foundational principles: How am I thinking? Am I moving my body? Am I eating well? Am I sleeping enough? [If] I can lean on those four pillars [mind, body, nutrition, sleep], everything else syncs up. We all know what happens when you're consuming too much caffeine and your diet is off in terms of how you feel emotionally. If some of those pillars are off, you realign and get back on the wagon. We make better decisions when we feel good.

What stresses you out?

Stress is never going to go away in our daily lives, but there are tools we can use to [mitigate] it. Many things stress me out — I used to be really stressed about money. My metric [for] success has changed. The tools I used to mitigate the stress was: Does this help you get closer to this particular chapter of your life? If it doesn't, I say no.

Do you have any small self-care rituals to help you reset?

You can control your responses to thoughts, which comes with training. I use breathing to lower my stress, instantly. I also move my body, if I’m able; if I’m on a plane, I’ll try to do 50 air squats until they tell me to go sit back down. If I don’t have access to that, I’ll just close my eyes and focus on things I’m grateful for. Those seem to be the simplistic tools I use day in and day out: breathing, or — if I need something “stronger” — a 10-20-minute workout to reset.

What brings you joy?

When I see people smile — when I feel they’ve gotten over something [and have] a resurgence of energy or purpose again — that seems to make me most happy.

What’s your mantra for life?

I have many. The quote I saw when I left the house today was by Douglas Malloch called “Good Timber” (“Good timber does not grow with ease: The stronger wind, the stronger trees”). The strongest trees weather the harshest storms. I know the power of the mind and consistency and know that people can eventually thrive. No matter the goal, all things are possible, [just not all at once].

What does financial wellness mean to you?

It’s two parts: literacy (complete understanding of what financial health is and what it means to be financially healthy, free from worry), and an association with money in a way that’s healthy versus a way that’s destructive or feeling like a hamster in a cage.

Where do you get wellness or health inspo?

Instagram, while powerful and amazing, has ways of hijacking the intention at times, and I’m trying to live a life with less comparison. For my entire [Olympic] career, all I did was compare myself to the world, every day, all day. At the end of that journey, the most powerful race I ever had, was the one inside of my own head. Social media, while an amazing tool, can derail or distract you away from the most important things.

What is your upcoming book, Hard Pivot, about?

It’s about times in our lives where we need to reinvent and adapt, and the resilience and understanding about going into the unknown to be our best. It’s a set of stories to inspire; everyone sees their own pain in a unique way. Whenever we go through a transformation it’s not easy. It was about a two-year process in getting [the book] done.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Typically the best advice is from my father. My dad always prompts me to seek my inner truth, seek my inner voice. Am I moving in the path that suits the life I want to lead? My dad was always about seeking fulfillment; he never once talked about earning money. I’ve been blessed in many respects, but I’ve made a lot of poor decisions. Because of those failures, I appreciate and am thankful for reinvention.We can pivot at any moment — that came from my dad: to always evolve and seek change in the most healthy ways.

What’re you looking forward to seeing at the upcoming games?

Seeing athletes compete at their best. Seeing this arena of international athletes just showing us what they've been doing for the past 10 years — it’s amazing. I’m excited to spend time and talk to the athletes and help them navigate [post-Olympic life]: retirement, the next phase, how to ease into that next phase of civilian life. Financial health is like a taboo subject (“I do it for the love of the sport, not the money”) but my thought is, let’s have this conversation. Let's make sure these athletes are tracking their physical health, mental health and financial health.

You read it here first: Apollo Ohno offers financial advice at the Tokyo Olympics!

[Laughs] I can offer life advice — and sometimes life advice involves our relationships with money.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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