Ice Network

Celski carving out own track to success

Two-time bronze medalist in Vancouver tries to stay grounded
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Celski is now one of the brightest talents in short track, having taken off since his post-Vancouver hiatus. -Ed McCulloch

It seems unthinkable now, but American short track star J.R. Celski once deeply questioned his place in the sport.

He was fresh off his first Olympics, walking away from the 2010 Olympic Winter Games with two bronze medals. His journey seemed finished; Celski felt burned out.

He survived a horrific accident at the U.S. trials in September 2009, when a fall on a skate blade gruesomely gouged his left thigh and left serious muscle damage. He recovered in five months, reclaimed his career and achieved his dream of making the U.S. Olympic team.

Walking away with two Olympic medals at 19 seemed like bonus pixie dust. He took a year off, lived life away from the ice and discovered a truth that still drives him: He still loved speedskating and had not yet reached his potential.

Celski is now one of the brightest talents in short track, having taken off since his post-Vancouver hiatus. He is the overall men's champion from the 2012 U.S. Short Track Championships as well as the reigning world record holder at 500 meters. (He also looks to continue dominating the 1,000 and 1,500.) More, he's poised to become one of the biggest stars of U.S. speed skating, an interesting place to be at the start of the most important season of his career.

"I was a kid going into Vancouver, so nobody expected anything, probably including myself," Celski, 23, said. "Now things are different, and I like it. I am a lot older and wiser now. I've been through the wringer quite a bit, and I've now been on the circuit for a while and exposed to a lot of different competition.

"I know what it means, the last two years, to step up to the plate. I take nothing for granted."

Celski, interestingly, refuses to acknowledge the quietly building hype about what could happen over the next nine months. He is in his prime as a short track speedskater, possibly becoming a multiple Olympic medalist and walking out of Sochi as one of the commercial American stars. He deflects comparisons to the now-retired Apolo Anton Ohno, who won eight medals over three Olympic Games. Ohno and Celski both hail from Federal Way, Wash., and learned how to skate at the same rink.

Ohno, the most decorated Olympian in Winter Games history, parlayed his popularity into commercials and a Dancing with the Stars slot. Celski respects Ohno's hard work and success but wants to chart his own path.

"I'm just doing my thing. I want to be myself, and I am not trying to be anybody that I am not," Celski said. "Apolo did wonderful things for the sport, and he accomplished a lot, for sure. I am just trying to do my best, be the best I can be, and not for being a star."

Celski got a taste of celebrity after Vancouver when people started recognizing him. It was a bit strange, with Celski trying to stay grounded.

"It was just weird and funny," Celski said. "After the Games, all this media and stuff, people recognizing me, made just wonder. I'm just a regular person. People say that they get, like, starstruck, shocked, seeing somebody that they define as a star.

"If that ever happens, I try to bring it back to the level of regular human beings. Getting recognized, that's cool, but it's nothing I want or find necessary. I am doing this for the love of sport, the challenging of who I am every day."

His resolve to be a speed skater was tested in 2011, when he broke his left ankle and was forced to miss the rest of the season. He came back for the 2012-13 season and set the 500-meter world record in the first World Cup meet of season.

"The world record was great, but I never put definitions of times or podium or medals on myself," Celski said. "I want to win. That's what motivates me to be out here every day, working hard."

Indeed, speed skating is the daily focus of Celski's life right now, working out every day at the Utah Olympic Oval under the watchful eye of coach Steve Gough. The days are long and intense.

He skates in two sessions, starting with warm-up at 8 a.m. There is a mid-day break to refuel and recover, and then he's back on the ice until nearly 6 p.m. Celski heads home and, by his own admission, lays low to get some rest. Training is a delicate balance.

Celski knows he needs to push himself to keep building his pace, but he's also aware he needs be smart about not getting hurt or peaking too soon. The end game is the Olympics, but he must manage his energy correctly for the events before Sochi. The U.S. Short Track Single Distance Championships loom in two weeks, and first World Cup competition starts Sept. 26 in Shanghai.

Celski and Gough's focus is on the U.S. short track Olympic trials, Jan. 2-5, 2014, at the Utah Olympic Oval. The Sochi Games begin Feb. 5.

Gough described Team Celski's measured approach for the fall.

"Refine and perfect his technique as well as develop his physical qualities," Gough wrote in an email, on their agenda. "Internationally, we want to get some good, positive racing in early and focus on some different tactical elements. By Olympic trials, we hope to be in top form, with a peak performance in February. [We want] a final in all distances."

No matter what happens over the next several months, Celski wants to maintain the right perspective. He's enjoying the ride and trying to remain as true to himself as possible.

"I am super lucky I am able to do what I love. I get to compete," Celski said. "It's tough because it's, go out and compete only six, seven, 10 times a year. Every competition, if I don't accomplish what I want, or if I get beat, it drives me be better. Not being my best makes me work harder.

"I've gone through the disappointment in the past, but it's making me stronger, be tougher and understand how to seize opportunities."