Apolo Ohno plugs Washington spuds

Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writer January 31, 2010 

Olympic champion Apolo Anton Ohno arguably is the world's fastest man on skates, and he's a bona fide fan of Washington spuds.

Ohno, who's bidding to set American Winter Olympic history at the games in Vancouver, counts the Washington State Potato Commission among his sponsors.

There's even a link to the Seattle native's Facebook page on the commission website, detailing his preparation for the Olympics -- including an occasional mention of potatoes.

The commission may be small potatoes in comparison with Ohno's big-dollar partners, which include Coca-Cola, Vick's and Alaska Airlines.

But nutrition, healthy eating and fitness are important issues to the short track speedskater, so much so that Octagon -- the global sports and entertainment marketing agency that represents him -- approached the commission about sponsoring him, said Karen Bonaudi, director of public affairs for the potato commission.

"Apolo is really passionate about cooking and eating healthy," said Cheryl Herbert, director of marketing for the Olympic & Action Sports Division of Octagon. "He loves to eat potatoes, he loves cooking them. He's from Washington, and he loves Washington potatoes.

"When he travels overseas, he always picks out the restaurants where the team eats. He appreciates good food. That's why this is such a natural partnership for him because he eats and loves potatoes," Herbert said.

The commission's sponsorship of Ohno is a relative bargain for an athlete of his stature -- in the "low six figures," said Bonaudi, declining to be more specific. The sponsorship value could grow even more if Ohno medals again in Vancouver.

Two more Olympic medals -- he has two golds, a silver and two bronzes from the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games -- would make the 27-year-old the most decorated Winter Olympian in American history. He is entered in three individual events and is part of a relay team.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," Bonaudi said.

Ohno isn't the only world-class athlete among Octagon's stable of clients -- which includes record-setting swimmer Michael Phelps -- to have a board for an agricultural product as a sponsor. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin, a fan of dried plums, is sponsored by the California Dried Plum Board, Herbert said.

"What's great about Natalie and Anton is they are both foodies," Herbert said. "Natalie grew up in California and Anton in Washington, where they were surrounded by great crops. So these are natural partnerships for both of them."

Ohno's agreement calls for him to make two appearances on behalf of the commission, which will be arranged sometime after the Olympics, Bonaudi said.

He's already part of the commission's outreach program to kids, appearing throughout a cookbook with potato recipes submitted by students from elementary schools in the Seattle area through the commission's Kids are Growing competitions. Photos for the recipe book were shot in one day in late July, Bonaudi said.

"He had a ton of fun shooting that. He loves working with kids," Herbert said.

The 20-page booklet, Washington's Super Speedskater Loves Super Spud Recipes from Washington Students, can be requested through a form on the commission website, www.potatoes.com.

About 15,000 booklets have been printed. They will be made available to schools the commission works with on various projects, as well as pediatricians and day care providers, Bonaudi said.

Ohno also is establishing the Apolo Ohno Foundation to promote healthy eating, exercise and good nutrition for children, goals the potato commission applauds.

"I really hope he does go through with this foundation because his and our values are so compatible," Bonaudi said.

-- Kevin McCullen: 509-582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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