J.R. Celski's attempt at back-to-back Olympic medals in the 1,500-meter short-track speedskating competition will have him leaving Sochi disappointed.
The touted United States skater finished in fourth place in Monday's 1,500-meter final, falling just shy of the podium with a time of 2 minutes, 15.624 seconds.
He places behind gold medalist Charles Hamelin of Canada, whose 2:14.985 was good enough to earn him his third gold medal of his storied career. Tianyu Han finished in second, while Russian Victor An rounded out the medalists.
Coming into Sochi, Celski was expected to come away with multiple medals—perhaps even multiple golds. He won bronze on both the 1,500-meter individual and the 5,000-meter team relay in Vancouver, mostly taking a backseat to Apolo Ohno in his first Olympic appearance.
After those Games, Celski, then 19 years old, needed time to decompress. He stepped away from the sport in 2011, taking the entire year off when most of his competitors were obsessively training already. But when Celski returned to the ice in 2012, it was clear the year off had allowed him to reach another level, per Jared S. Hopkins of the Chicago Tribune:
When I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted to skate again, I really approached it with a different mentality. I developed this—I don't know, like a burning love almost inside of me that I just wanted to get up and I just wanted to skate every single day and get better.
With Ohno, the most decorated speedskater in United States history, walking away from the sport, Celski sensed his opportunity and seized it. An ankle injury held back an otherwise promising 2012 season, but he really shined in the following year. Celski set a world record at 39.937 seconds in the 500-meter race at the 2013 World Cup, becoming the first person in history to go under 40 seconds.
While his World Championship run didn't live up to its hype, Celski was a multi-race qualifier in Sochi. He won five of six short-track finals at the United States trials and seemed to be heading in the right direction.
The Associated Press projected Hamelin would win gold and Han-Bin Lee of South Korea would finish right behind. The South Korean's run finished in sixth, making him arguably a slightly bigger disappointment. Celski was projected as a bronze medalist.
Still, Celski came in as the biggest hope for the Americans, who have long been looking for a replacement for Ohno. Many speedskaters, like Travis Jayner, were eager to see how Celski would fare under the pressure:
Failing to medal on Monday puts Celski in a difficult, albeit understandable position for the rest of these Games. Facing a field that featured an elite Russian in An, it felt like Celski would be at a disadvantage. An is among the best—if not the best—short-track skaters in the world, even when he doesn't have the roars of the home crowd behind him. Hamelin's gold was his first in the 1,500 meters, but it seemed like only a matter of time before he'd come out triumphant.
Now retired and covering the sport for NBC, Ohno won 1,500-meter gold in Salt Lake City and 500-meter gold in Turin to go along six additional medals (two silver, four bronze). Celski still has chances to live up to his promise in Sochi, but Monday's race proves that might be easier said than done.
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