Malone's return overshadows Celski, Smith's winsCoaches, skaters make adjustment to new qualifying format
Jordan Malone stood on top of the podium Sunday afternoon enjoying a moment he almost gave up believing was possible.
"I'm basically having to shake a lot of the rust off," the 1,000-meter champion said at the end of the U.S. Single Distance Short Track Championships. "It's been a year and a half since I've had a real major competition. Coming back from an injury-plagued season last year, I actually thought I was going to quit. But it was one of those situations where, like most times, if you just put your head down and don't give up, then you'll be happy with what happens."
Malone said he was discouraged and unsure if, at the advanced age of 29, he could realistically still chase his Olympic dream.
"In my sport, being 29, you're a grandpa," he said without cracking a smile. "It may not seem like much, but I've been doing this for 25 years, and I've been making teams for close to 14 years. It's been a lifetime."
Ultimately, it was the idea of wondering what might have been that caused him to come back.
"The realization that made me keep going is that I've never been happy with anything I've ever given up on," he said. "So it can't be now."
Malone's goals for the season's first official competition were modest.
"My goal coming in was just to be in the mix," he said smiling. "I saw it as an important competition, but at the same time, it means nothing in the grand scheme of things."
A second-place finish in the first final and a win in the second final earned him a spot on the World Cup team, not to mention a 1,000-meter championship.
"I'm on my way back," said Malone, who enjoyed his best day of racing after getting stitches because of a fall Saturday. "I wouldn't say I'm back yet, but I'm doing better. Hopefully, I'm expecting I'll get better throughout the season, just like I got better throughout this competition."
His teammates admire his decision and his perseverance.
"I think a lot of us have been skating our whole lives, and each of us has gone through peaks and valleys," said J.R. Celski, the men's overall champion with the most points after three days of racing. "You know, those valleys, sometimes you want to call it quits beause it gets to be too much mentally. I think Jordan is one of those athletes who pushes past those valleys. He's here now and obviously he's proven to himself that he can do it. It's awesome."
Celski, who dominated every race, surprised everyone when he finished fourth in the second 1,000-meter semifinal Sunday, putting him in the B final, which he went on to win.
"I'd earned my spot," he said. "I didn't want to risk too much. Now is not the goal. So I want to stay safe through trials, through all the World Cups and through the next trials."
There was a surprise on the ladies side as well, with overall champion Jessica Smith also failing to make the A final in the second 1,000 of the day. Like Celski, Smith went on to win the B final, but in her case, she said she made a tactical mistake in the second semifinal.
"I just made an error," she said. "It happens, I guess, and you learn from it and move on. I know what I did. It's an easy mistake to make, but at a World Cup, it's not the brightest mistake to be making. So I'm glad it didn't happen there."
Most of the athletes said the new format for qualifying for the World Cup teams was grueling but gave them some advantages strategically.
"I didn't know what to expect or how it would go," Smith said. "It could go both ways. If you mess up one distance, you have the opportunity to pull it around the same day. But then sometimes it's nice if you mess up, to let it go and focus on a different distance, and then be able to prepare for that distance the next day."
Celski and Chris Creveling, who made the podium in every distance, said there is less time for recovery, and that has its pros and cons.
"I think it was a good format," said Celski. "It's kind of relieving if you do well the first distance, it kind of helps with the second."
It wasn't, however, any easier.
"It was different," Celski said. "Two distances, the same distances every day, so it was a lot of mental energy that went into it."
Creveling added, "We did adjust our training program, and we had to prepare for whatever they throw at us, as we will with the Games. We prepared really well for this. ... I think it worked out really well."
U.S. short track coach Stephen Gouh said U.S. Speedskating officials changed the format so it would be more fan friendly as the Olympic team was selected.
"We thought it would make for better TV basically," Gough said, laughing. "At the end of every night, NBC could announce who's qualified for the Olympic teams, so it's going to make for some excitement."
He said, for the most part, the athletes liked the change.
"It would be a bit of a shock to the system if we did it for the first time around in January," he said.
Gough was satisfied with how the athletes handled the change and how they were competing, especially with it being so early in the season.
"I'm very pleased with the way the girls are skating," Gough said. "Emily [Scott] has been doing very well in training, and I was hoping just to see what happened in the racing."
Scott scored her first two victories at the U.S.-championship level, including a win in the first 1,000-meter final Sunday. She took second in the second 1,000-meter final, behind Alyson Dudek. Their one-two finish ensured they will compete that distance at the World Cup level.
"I was really excited to get another win," said Scott, referring to her finals victory in the first 1,500-meter race Friday. "I was a little bit tired this morning, just from three really hard days of racing. … It's pretty exhausting."
She said her victory Sunday morning allowed her to strategize with Dudek in the second race so they could finish one-two in the 1,000 meters.
"Today was tough because it was day four," Dudek said after claiming silver in the 1,000-meter championship. "But I always want to finish on a strong and happy note, and I think I did that today."
The fall U.S. World Cup team was named following the competition Sunday. The team is chosen by taking the six athletes with the highest point totals for the weekend. The women's team is: Smith, Dudek, Scott, Sarah Chen, Lana Gehring and You Young "Sally" Chea. The men's team is: Celski, Creveling, Malone, John-Henry Krueger, Eddy Alvarez and Jeff Simon.