Apolo Anton Ohno took his soul patch, bandanas and eight Olympic medals into retirement, leaving a gaping hole in American short track speedskating.
J.R. Celski is poised to step into the void as the country’s best hope for a medal in the wild and wooly sport known as roller derby on ice.
The 23-year-old from Federal Way, Washington, will compete at his second Olympics looking to add to the pair of bronze medals he won at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when Ohno was ending his career as America’s most decorated Winter Olympian.
Celski qualified in all three distances for Sochi, in addition to the 5,000-meter relay. He’s ranked among the world’s top 10 in the 1,000 and 1,500, and just outside the top 10 in the 500.
This time, Celski is healthy heading to the Olympics. At the U.S. trials four years ago, his right skate sliced his left leg in a crash, spewing blood on the ice. He bruised his femoral artery and came close to severing it, which could have been fatal.
The accident required six hours of daily physical therapy, which robbed him of practice time. But he bounced back five months later to make the podium in Vancouver.
“My goal was just to get to Vancouver. I did that and the medals were just a bonus,” he said. “This time, I’m going to Sochi healthy and I’m looking forward to doing some damage.”
Celski took a year off after Vancouver to re-establish his goals and mindset. Once he returned and started winning races, he rekindled the love he had for the sport. He welcomes assuming leadership of the U.S. men’s team from Ohno, who mentored Celski and remains one of his biggest supporters.
“I am very happy to be in the position I am now. I looked up to that guy for a long time,” said Celski, who like Ohno is from the Seattle area. “This time is completely different for me mentally, physically, I’m healthy. I’m going to ride that momentum.”
In Vancouver, a team led by Ohno and now-retired Katherine Reutter earned a total of six medals — two silver and four bronze — to trail only powerhouse South Korea in the standings.
The Americans will be hard-pressed to equal that showing in Russia, but the men have the stronger team.
Unlike the U.S. women, who didn’t qualify a relay team for Sochi, the U.S. men will be a gold-medal favorite in the 5,000 relay. Celski will be joined by Eddy Alvarez, Kyle Carr, Chris Creveling and Jordan Malone in making up the team. The Americans were top-ranked during the World Cup season.
“We all practice together every day and that’s going to make a huge difference,” Celski said.
Their togetherness is in stark contrast to the turmoil that roiled the U.S. short track program beginning in 2012.
Coach Jae Su Chun was accused by a dozen national team members of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. He also was alleged to have ordered speedskater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of a Canadian rival.
Chun denied all allegations, and other members of the team came to his defense. He’s serving a two-year suspension through October, and Jessica Smith is the only skater he coaches to have made the Olympic team. He plans to be in the stands in Sochi, although he won’t be allowed inside the racing area.
Celski was among Chun’s accusers.
“Everybody had their choice,” Celski said.
Canadian Stephen Gough was brought in to oversee the fractured national program, and tread lightly in trying to bring cohesion in the months leading up to Sochi.
“He made sure that the right people were in place,” Celski said of Gough’s staffing choices. “They’re a lot of the reason why we are the team we are today. Everybody is meshing really well together. That’s what the biggest change has been in the past 1½ years is really figuring out who are the key people that are going to raise this team’s spirits.”
Like Ohno, who had varied interests off the ice, Celski is into music and filmmaking. Last year, he produced “The Other Side,” a documentary featuring Grammy-winning duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and other hip hop acts in the Pacific Northwest.
Having endured the turmoil to make a second Olympics, Celski is now optimistic enough to consider the future.
“I love to speed skate,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I convince myself to keep going.”