J.R. Celski wasn’t supposed to make it to his first Olympics in 2010, let alone win medals. Now, the speedskater is headed to his third games as the Zen-like presence of the U.S. team in the calamitous sport of short track.
The 27-year-old from Federal Way, Washington, will be looking to add to the silver medal he won in the 5,000-meter relay four years ago in Sochi and the pair of bronze medals he won at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when teammate Apolo Ohno was ending his career as America’s most decorated Winter Olympian.
Celski was tabbed as Ohno’s heir apparent, and while it hasn’t quite worked out that way, he finds himself the only skater with Olympic experience and medals on the U.S. short track team in Pyeongchang.
“It gives me an edge because I’m able to understand the stress and the pressure that we face,” Celski said. “They always say experience is one of the greatest things to have in sports. Coming in as a young kid, I didn’t really know that.”
Five months before the 2010 Games, Celski experienced a gruesome high-speed crash at the U.S. trials in which his left thigh was sliced open by a 16-inch (40.6 centimeters) skate blade. The cut was 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) wide and 2 inches (5 centimeters) deep, and required 60 stitches.
The blade got stuck in his leg, covering the ice with blood. The gash came within an inch of the main artery in his leg. Fortunately, the blade only cut muscle.
“That was one of the biggest injuries I’ve ever dealt with,” Celski said. “To be able to tell myself, ‘Look, this happened to you, but you’re going to be able to get back on your feet and go accomplish something that a lot of people wouldn’t have even tried to after that,’ that definitely keeps me going and I definitely draw on that for inspiration.
“I was the underdog at that games and it felt good to go out and accomplish something that I had no idea I could do beforehand.”
He’s endured other injuries in recent years, but rebounded to anchor the 5,000 relay to a world record last fall in China.
“He’s coming into form at the right time,” U.S. short track team coach Anthony Barthell said.
Celski qualified in the 1,000 and 1,500 for Pyeongchang, in addition to the 5,000 relay, where the U.S. men will try to win a fourth straight Olympic medal. They are ranked third in the world going into the games.
He’s ranked seventh in the world in the 1,500, and 18th in the 1,000.
Four years ago in Sochi, Celski and his teammates in the 5,000 relay prevented a shutout for the entire U.S. speedskating team with their silver – the lone medal won by the Americans at their worst Olympics in decades.
“A lot of people look at that as motivation and a lot of people are going to come out and change the way things go this time,” he said. “I just wanted to come back and explore if I could get any better than I was, come out and really push myself mentally and physically to limits I’ve never been before.”
In the wild and wooly world of short track – where crashes can make or break medal hopes – Celski is an anomaly. Ohno had his soul patch and bandanas to go with a commanding presence. Celski is quiet and soft-spoken.
“I like to be calm and find the peace in the chaos,” he said.
He attributes his low-key personality to growing up in the Seattle area surrounded by towering trees and water.
“It’s a very calm and beautiful area,” he said.
Celski has taken a thoughtful approach to his third Olympics. He’s paid greater attention to his nutrition and recovery, realizing that his teenage habits don’t necessarily translate to a man approaching 30.
“It is a process to be an athlete,” he said. “Not just going out there and competing when people are watching, but what do you do behind the scenes? I believe that makes all the difference. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience about myself. What keeps me going is the chance to grow more so as a human than anything else.”
After his first two Olympics, Celski had his mind made up on his future plans, only to have them turn out completely differently.
“This time, I’m really just focusing on skating and putting all my energy into training and competing,” he said. “I feel better because of that.”