Is JR Celski Ready to Be the Face of US Speed Skating?

Lyle FitzsimmonsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2014

Jan 5, 2014; Kearns, UT, USA; J.R. Celski competes in the 1000m of the U.S. Olympic short track speedskating trials at Utah Olympic Oval. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to the voluntary exit of the country’s most prolific speed-skater (Apolo Anton Ohno) and the graceful aging of another (Shani Davis), the upcoming 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia have a chance to be the ultimate coming-out party for a certain California-born short-track ace.

And if you use his performance from a weekend on the Olympic Trials oval in suburban Salt Lake City as evidence, charismatic Ohno protégé J.R. Celski is absolutely ready for his close-up.

“I think it’s a good indication of how he’s skating right now. He’s just dominant,” Ohno said Sunday, while riding analytical shotgun to play-by-plan man Terry Gannon on NBC’s live broadcast. “Technically, he’s skating at an incredible level, and his lap times have been pretty incredible, too.

“It really sends the message, ‘I am here and ready to compete on an international level.’”

If true, it’ll be welcome reason to notice a guy who’s already turned heads for other reasons.

Celski, then just 19, was among the U.S. team’s short-track hopefuls heading toward the 2010 Games, but he ultimately earned the lion’s share of his Vancouver headlines after a ghastly injury sustained when a rapier-sharp skate blade gouged his left thigh to the bone at the trials in Marquette, Mich.

He was back on the ice 60 stitches later and did leave Western Canada with a pair of bronzes—one from the 5,000-meter relay and another from the 1,500 individual race—but still deeply in the on-ice shadow of both the retiring Ohno, who won the final three of his eight career short-track medals; and the peaking Davis, who struck gold in the long-track 1,000 meters for the second straight Olympics.

Now 23, Celski has made the off-ice mainstream thanks to a fondness for producing documentaries (The Otherside, on Seattle’s hip-hop scene) and hanging with Grammy-nominated recording artists (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis). And he’s become identifiable on the ice due to uniform changes for U.S. team members following his injury that include protective Kevlar bodysuits and neck guards.

Still, other notoriety aside, his Utah star turn couldn’t have come at a better time for the program.

Rather than the prowess of Celski or his female counterpart, Jessica Smith—who won the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 in Salt Lake City this weekend—the most significant 2013 plotlines for the U.S. team revolved around the soap-opera intrigue that prompted the ouster of former coach Jae Su Chun, and the rift left in the aftermath thanks to the remaining skaters, primarily Smith, who still train with him in exile.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JANUARY 05:  Jessica Smith celebrates  after winning the second ladies 1,000 meter final during the U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval on January 5, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Chun was in the crowd Sunday and got waves and winks whenever his charges won heats.

The awkward drama has forced the new coach, Stephen Gough, to memorize a politically correct script.

“We let each other go about our business,” he told NBC’s Andrea Joyce. “When we get on the road, we’re all together as one team. My job is making sure we’re ready to go and win. I’m not worried in the least about people getting along. I’m just concerned each athlete has what they need to be prepared.”

If Celski brings to the land of Putin what he possessed in the house of Osmond, he needn’t worry. Like Smith, he’ll race the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 individual events, along with the 5,000-meter men’s relay along with some combination of teammates Eddy Alvarez, Chris Creveling, Jordan Malone and Kyle Carr.

And if his broadcast-closing remarks were prescient, he’s not there simply to compete.

“The USA is here to play,” Celski said. “We’ve made it here and the intention now is to go to Sochi and represent. I couldn’t have asked for a better team than this. There’s no question we’re thinking gold.”