Ice Network

New era begins with Celski leading short trackers

Five men, three ladies look to bag medals for Team USA in Sochi
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J.R. Celski, Apolo Anton Ohno's heir apparent, dons the red helmet at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Short Track Speed Skating Trials after earning the most points. -Getty Images

The exhilaration of making the U.S. Olympic team was evident.

J.R. Celski pumped both of his arms high above his head in celebration as he crossed the finish line at the Utah Olympic Oval.

His dominant half-lap victory in the men's 1,500-meter race final at the U.S. Olympic trials in early January officially anointed him as one of the United States' best medal hopes in short track speed skating at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Apolo Anton Ohno, the iconic face of U.S. short trackers for the last three Olympics, watched in his new role as a TV commentator.

No Ohno?

Oh, yes.

The Olympics are not new to Celski. He won a pair of bronze medals at the 2010 Winter Games. He was a triple bronze medalist all the way back in 2009 at the World Short Track Championships.

But until now, there was always Ohno, an eight-time Olympic medalist and winner of the silver medal in the 1,500 at the last two Olympics. Half of the USA-record six Olympic medals won by American short trackers in Vancouver were won by Ohno.

No other Olympian in U.S. history has won as many medals at the Olympic Winter Games as Ohno has.

Ohno's retirement and Celski's emergence is just a piece of the many sweeping changes to the U.S. short track national team. Guy Thibault, a former long track coach, is the team's program director, and Stephen Gough is the new head coach after the resignation of Jae Su Chun following accusations of verbal and physical abuse, along with being accused of being involved in U.S. skater Simon Cho's tampering with a Canadian athlete's skates. Mike Plant, a long track Olympian at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, is the new CEO.

Gone also from the Olympic team of 2010 is Katherine Reutter, the only ladies individual medalist in Vancouver. She won a silver medal in the 1,000-meter race. It has been 20 years since an American woman won a gold medal in short track.

Four years after Ohno won a silver medal and two bronze medals at his final Olympic Games, there was Celski wearing the red helmet at the Olympic trials and winning races. The red helmet is worn by the skater with the most overall points.

Celski won the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter races at the trials and will compete in those individual events in Sochi. But this time, he will not be skating in the shadows of Ohno.

"I've gotten the experience, but this time is completely different for me," Celski said. "Mentally, physically, I'm healthy. I'm going to ride that momentum. I look forward to doing some damage over there."

Different? Yes. This time around, Celski wasn't sprawled on the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval with blood spurting out of his leg. That is precisely what happened at the 2010 U.S. Olympic trials. After losing his balance in a tight turn, Celski crashed into the side boards with one of his skates cutting a huge gash across his leg.

Five months later, a crash that took out two South Korean skaters in the final turn allowed Celski to win bronze in the 1,500 at the Vancouver Olympics. Such short track moments have caused Celski, among others, to call short track racing something like "NASCAR on ice."

Joining Celski on the men's squad are Christopher Creveling, Jordan Malone, Christopher Kyle Carr and Eddy Alvarez, the first Cuban-American Olympic speed skater in U.S. history. Alvarez also qualified for Sochi in three events.

Malone won a bronze medalist in Vancouver as a part of the men's 5,000-meter relay team. He and Celski are likely to be the leaders on the relay team again in Sochi.

Since the split with Chun, a division still exists among short trackers. Jessica Smith, who missed making the 2010 U.S. Olympic team by a slim margin, retained Chun as a personal coach despite a two-year suspension by the International Skating Union. Several others in the national program are also coached by Chun. When Smith made the Olympic team with a second-place finish in the ladies 1,500-meter final at the trials, she jumped onto the barrier separating the ice from spectators at the Utah Olympic Oval and exchanged a high-five slap with Chun.

"Switching from inline, he's helped me get to where I am today, going to Sochi," Smith said. "It's been a long, long process, and he's been with me every step of the way, pushing me every step of the way. It's just been a dream come true, finally."

Smith, 30, qualified in three events for the Olympics, just as Celski and Alvarez did.

Emily Scott, who defeated Smith in the 1,500, and Alyson Dudek, who skated both short track and long track, are the only other women who qualified for the Olympics.

Dudek is the only two-time Olympian on the ladies squad and finished 13th in the 500 at the 2010 Games.

Scott is a first-time Olympian following an inline skating career that included five world championships. Scott finished second in the American Cup standings in 2009-10 and followed that up by winning a bronze medal at the 2011 World Short Track Championships.

While the long track speed skating competiton will be held at Adler Arena in Sochi's coastal cluster of venues, short track will be held at the Iceberg Skating Palace. Iceberg will also be the venue for figure skating, and it is located adjacent to Adler Arena. Short track will be held on five dates, beginning Feb. 10 with the ladies 500, men's 1,500, and ladies 3,000 relay.

The Olympic format calls for 32 skaters in each individual event. Races are held with four skaters at a time. The top two finishers in each heat advance to the next round, and eliminations continue until the final race.