Biggest Takeaways from the US Speed Skating Trials

James McMahonContributor IJanuary 6, 2014

Biggest Takeaways from the US Speed Skating Trials

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    After almost a week of intense competition and engaging storylines, U.S. speedskating has settled on its 25 skaters who will comprise the American short-track and long-track teams in next month’s Sochi Olympics.

    The U.S. long-track and short-track trials, which got underway December 27 and concluded on Sunday evening, reintroduced talented veterans seeking additional Olympic glory, emerging stars looking to carve their own place in the critical Winter Olympics sport and a few surprises that should make for an interesting competition in Russia.

    Additionally, with the announcement of the team, U.S. speedskating looks to move beyond months of controversy and infighting among its short-oval squad and the retirement of the sport’s most popular skater and return the focus to continuing its historically strong showing in the Winter Games.

    With the team now a reality, we look at the biggest developments and performances from the trials and look ahead to what promises to be a successful U.S. squad at the Sochi Olympics.

US Speed Skating Team Has the Talent to Match 2002 Olympic Glory

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    Given the significant depth of the long-track team and the emerging talent at the top of the short-track squad, the United States speedskating team could have a Sochi Olympics that rivals its strong showing more than a decade ago in Salt Lake City.

    The long-track team captured eight medals in the 2002 Winter Olympics, including three gold performances. That effort was complemented by three trips to the medal podium from their short-track brethren, giving U.S. speedskating 11 medals on its home turf.

    While that’s certainly a tough measure to match, the Americans demonstrated over the past week of Olympic trials that they remain strong in a sport that has delivered nearly a third of their Winter Olympics medal haul all time.

    Shani Davis and Heather Richardson were absolutely electrifying on the long oval earlier last week, and short-track standouts J.R. Celski and Jessica Smith more than dominated this weekend’s trials.

    The depth of the long-track team, which includes former Olympic silver medalists Brian Hansen and Jonathan Kuck, along with rising teen phenom Emery Lehman on the men’s side and the talented Brittany Rowe for the women’s team, is as good as ever.

    Likewise, the likelihood of stirring performances from Celski and Smith, coupled with the potential of skaters such as Chris Creveling, Eduardo Alvarez and Emily Scott, provides a measure of hope for a surprisingly strong showing from the short-track team.

    To actually deliver a double-digit medal haul is no easy task, but if the past week of trials is any indication, things are certainly looking good for the skating Yanks in Sochi.

J.R. Celski Is Ready to Star at Sochi Games

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    Celski is no Apolo Anton Ohno, but the rising star has more than solidified himself as the new face of the United States Olympic short-track speedskating team and as an Olympian with the potential to shine the brightest at next month’s Sochi Winter Games.

    The dynamic 23-year-old absolutely dominated the U.S. short-track speedskating trials, capturing the 1,500-meter and 500-meter events as well as the second final in the 1,000 meters in impressive fashion. Celski, who earned a pair of bronze medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games, is a strong threat to medal in the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter competitions in Russia.

    Given the retirement of Ohno, the most decorated athlete in U.S. Winter Olympic history, and the turmoil that has surrounded the team over the past 24 months, the accession of Celski as a significant gold-medal threat in multiple events is absolutely huge for the U.S. team.

    The five-member men’s short-track squad needs an on-ice leader to help move it beyond recent scandal and turmoil, and the Washington native appears more than up to the task considering his four-day performance at the trials.

    If Celski can maintain that top form and continue his vast improvement over his Vancouver showing, he will undoubtedly be one of the breakout stars of the entire United States Olympic team.

Shani Davis Still on Track for 1,500-Meter Glory in Sochi

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    Already one of the greatest long-track speedskaters in U.S. Olympic history, Davis didn't miss a beat at last week’s long-track trials in his efforts to add a 1,500-meter gold to his illustrious resume at the Sochi Olympics.

    The smooth-skating American was a dominant force at the Utah Olympic Oval, capturing the 1,000- and 1,500-meter events and then qualifying for the 500-meter competition as well. Davis already has 1,000-meter gold medals from the past two Winter Games and is absolutely determined to add a gold performance in the 1,500-meter distance on the big oval in Russia.

    The Chicago native posted silver-medal showings in the 1,500-meter race at both the Turin and Vancouver Olympics.

    "That would be a big dream come true, to be able to win a gold medal in the 1,500," Davis said, according to the Associated Press, via ESPN, during the long-track trials. "I love that race so much because when I was a junior skater, the first race I won was the 1,500."

    There’s no denying it’s a deep and talented long-track American team that could rack up multiple medals, but it will undoubtedly be Davis’ quest to add to his past greatness with a first 1,500-meter gold and a third 1,000-meter Olympic triumph that will headline the team's efforts in Sochi.

Jessica Smith Better Than Ever in Clinching First Olympic Berth

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    After falling painfully short of an Olympic berth four years ago, Smith put forth career-best efforts at the short-track trials this past weekend and is heading to Sochi as a result.

    In fact, just as Celski did, Smith dominated this weekend’s Olympic trials, winning two of the three events while proving that even at the age of 30 she has the stamina, speed and determination to compete at the highest level in multiple short-track events.

    After strong individual time trials on Thursday, Smith officially qualified for the team by finishing second in the 1,500-meter event on Friday and then captured the 500-meter final on Saturday to qualify for that competition as well. On Sunday, Smith won both 1,000-meter finals.

    Still training under ousted U.S. coach Jae Su Chun, Smith will compete in her first Olympics after serving as the first alternate to the deep 2010 Vancouver team that was led by Katherine Reutter.

    Reutter is now retired and after her strong performance in Utah this past weekend, Smith is now the unexpected face of the women’s short-track team, which sends only three skaters to Russia next month.

    "It's been a long, long journey," said Smith, according to the AP, via ESPN, who narrowly missed making the Olympic team four years ago. "It's a proud moment for me and coach Jae Su Chun and all the coaches that came before."

Jae Su Chun Still Looms over U.S. Short-Track Team

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    The United States Olympic short-track squad may have turned the page on its painful and recent dysfunctional past by qualifying its team for next month’s Sochi Olympics, but there’s no doubt the presence of former coach Chun continues to hover over the eight-member team.

    The coach, who resigned in 2012 amid a cheating scandal and accusations of athlete abuse, remained a prominent figure during this weekend’s trials and is equally likely to stay in the picture throughout next month’s Winter Games.

    Chun, who now operates Salt Lake International, is still the coach of women’s standout Smith, who immediately embraced him after qualifying for the Sochi team on Friday night.

    Indeed, the effects of the deep rift that developed between pro-Chun members of U.S. speedskating and those who supported his ouster, has already affected the U.S. team. For the first time since short-track racing was introduced to the Olympics in 1992, the Americans will not field a women’s 3,000-meter relay team, due in large part to the lack of communication and unity among the skaters.

    Current U.S. coach Stephen Gough dismissed the notion that Chun remains a distraction to his team moving forward, but there’s little doubt that his continued presence leading up to Sochi will remain a storyline.

Heather Richardson Absolutely Dominant in Long-Track Trials

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    Heather Richardson didn't just shine at the U.S. long-track speedskating trials, she dominated them. The Olympic veteran won the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter events, and as a result, she is a significant threat to win gold at the Sochi Games.

    Richardson, who will be making her second straight Olympic appearance, outdueled second-place finisher Brittany Bowe in all three events; avenging earlier losses this season to her friendly rival. Yet despite the trials sweep, it’s expected that the American pair will stage some classic duals next month in Russia.

    "You know, she beat me three times in the fall," Richardson said during the trials, according to the AP, via ESPN, breaking into a big smile. "We're going back and forth. It's all fun."

    The North Carolina native, who failed to finish among the top five in any of the three events she competed in at the Vancouver Olympics, was expected to excel in the two shorter races during the trials, but her winning performance in the 1,500-meter competition bodes well for her chances of earning multiple medals at the Sochi Games.

Emily Scott Is the Feel-Good Story of the Trials

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    While the speedskating trials were full of stirring performances and interesting storylines, the tale of Scott’s accession to the U.S. Olympic short-track team heading to Sochi is almost too much to believe.

    Just this past summer, the talented American was living on food stamps after her monthly stipend from U.S. speedskating was cut significantly from just under $2,000 to $650. Yet after USA Today detailed her struggles back in July, 689 people stepped up to donate a total of $48,625 that kept Scott’s Olympic dream alive.

    Those generous donations also made it possible for her father to travel to Utah this past weekend to see his daughter compete for one of only three spots on the Sochi short-track team. Both he and the nearly 700 people who saved Scott’s journey were rewarded Saturday when the Missouri native qualified for the team with her second-place finish in the 500-meter event.

    Scott, who joins Smith and Alyson Dudek on the U.S. team, actually captured the 1,500-meter race on Friday, but that first qualifying spot went to Smith based on overall points.

    Nonetheless, The 24-year-old will now make her first Olympic appearance next month in Russia as an example of perseverance and determination that makes the Winter Games so special.

Men's Short-Track Relay Team Showing Promise

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    While it remains to be seen just how powerful the U.S. men’s short-track relay team will be at the Sochi Olympics, it promises to be a group united when the competition arrives.

    The team will be comprised of four of the five men who qualified for the short-track team—Celski, Creveling, Alvarez, Kyle Carr and Jordan Malone—all of whom currently train with the national team coaching staff.

    Had a member of the squad been a part of Chun’s Salt Lake International camp, the same lack of communication and organization that kept the women’s 3,000-meter team from qualifying for Sochi could have doomed the men’s team in the 5,000-meter relay.

    Instead, the relay team, which will likely be led by Celski, will have a significant say in who comes away with gold in the important event next month. It’s indeed a measure of good fortune for a short-track team that could stand some given how difficult the past couple years have been.

Emery Lehman Ready to Become Teen Star in Sochi

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    In one of the more thrilling races in the long-track trials, the 17-year-old Lehman announced he just might be the fresh new face America can fall in love with during the Sochi Games.

    The Illinois native surprised many by rallying past the more experienced Kuck to win the taxing 10,000-meter event. Lehman trailed Kuck with four laps to go but had enough left in the tank to overtake his fellow countryman on the homeward stretch to win by a stunning 0.07 seconds or essentially the length of a skate blade.

    The race, which took more than 13 minutes to complete, was a highlight of the long-track trials and has positioned Lehman to become the future of U.S. speedskating on the long oval beyond the Sochi Olympics. That said, the 2012 national champion in the 5,000 meters could very well hasten that assent to the forefront of the sport with an unexpected showing next month.