Ohno, with his glamorous multiethnic good looks, sat at a table covered with a red cloth, looking as if he'd just emerged from the shower, a few wet locks falling across his chiseled cheeks, a subversive patch of whiskers at the tip of his chin. He wore baggy jeans and a big shirt. Twenty years old, he looked 16, slightly embarrassed and a little sleepy. He courteously signed hundreds of autographs and graciously stood again and again to be photographed with his adoring fans.
The girls stood nervously in line waiting for him to appear. "What do you like about him?" I asked a 15-year-old clutching Ohno's newly published autobiography.
She looked at me like I was crazy. "His face," she said. "His arms." She rolled her eyes at me as if to say "Duuhhhh."
She inched forward in line and finally got her autograph and her picture. "Ohmigod," she murmured. "Ohmigod. He smells like flowers. He's my future husband." Her face flushed bright pink. Her cheek was hot enough to make any mother break out the thermometer. All around us, other hot-cheeked girls beamed and squealed. They had touched Apolo. He was theirs for a brief speck of time.
I am no stranger to the phenomenon of celebrity idolatry and schoolgirl crushes. I remember watching The Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles debuted in America. I sat on the living room floor on a Sunday night in my cotton pajamas, ready for bed. Far more interesting that the Beatles, who were cute and clever and shaggy and bouncy, were the screaming girls in the audience, shrieking, crying, pulling their hair, clinging to one another. They were wild and out of their minds. I remember thinking that some of them were on the verge of something dangerous -- fainting maybe, or dying of love.
I asked the women in my office who they loved when they were 15.
"Ohmigod," said one. "Eddie Vedder. I swear if I had ever come in contact with him, I would have thrown up."
"Ralph Macchio," said one, "the Karate Kid"
Many remembered the innocuous television heartthrobs who graced the covers of teen magazines -- David Cassidy, Sean Cassidy, Scott Baio. One named the starry-eyed and oddly sexless heartthrob Robby Benson.
One claimed she wasn't into that stuff. Another, embarrassed, admitted to a strong crush on the lead singer of Styx. "Eeeeeeew," screamed another.
My daughter's true love was River Phoenix, another sexless pretty boy whose celebrity life quickly turned tragic. His band came to our town before he got too drugged out, and I drove a carload of 14-year-olds to see him perform. They moaned for days afterward. His obituary hung on our refrigerator for five years.
I asked my sons if boys went through this phase of obsessing over a celebrity heartthrob, of actually going so far as imagining that the object of their desire could somehow be theirs. "Not really," said one. "It's more like she's hot. And she's hot." Pressed, they admitted that some of their friends had fixations on sexy pop stars, but not to the degree that the girls at Chinook idolized Apolo Anton Ohno.
They asked me who my teenage heartthrob was, expecting, I imagine, to hear the name of some grungy rock star.
"John-Boy Walton," I said. "Richard Thomas, the guy on The Waltons." The two were one in my mind.
They shrieked in derisive laughter.
It was true, nonetheless, and I felt a certain relief at outing my John-Boy fixation. He was the perfect boy. He wrote his secret thoughts in a diary. He had dreams of fame and escape from Walton's Mountain to the big city. He was firm but kind to his pack of little brothers and sisters. He loved his old grandma and honored his mama. He sipped bootleg wine and whiskey with the dippy old maiden aunts who were his neighbors. And he was flawed. He had a big, furry birthmark on his face that didn't seem to bother him a bit, that marked him as something of a regular guy, not a movie star way off in the Hollywood galaxy.
Yes, I told my sons, I loved John-Boy and I wanted to marry him. A weathered knot in my heart released quietly.
"Good night, John-boy," I whispered. "Good night."