J.R. Celski doesn't have a soul patch or a red bandana or longish hair.
But he does have a cool commercial. The short-track speedskater is the subject of one of those Olympic television commercials that can make you go all warm and fuzzy.
It opens with a grown-up Celski raising a trophy and then shows home movies of his life lived backward, ending with a beaming toddler taking a few careful steps on a pair of plastic inline skates.
The ads—several of them depicting U.S. athletes—show where Celski came from. What we don’t know is where he’s going.
Until now, the steps were all laid out. Growing up in the same Seattle-area rink as an older Apolo Anton Ohno, Celski has spent his career in Ohno’s contrails. It prompted easy comparisons and the belief that Celski would inherit the mantle of American short track.
"I am very happy to be in the position I am now. I looked up to that guy for a long time," Celski told the Associated Press. "This time is completely different for me mentally, physically, I'm healthy. I'm going to ride that momentum."
Now, with a chance to forge his own identity, Celski, 23, begins the rest of his Olympic life with the opening 1,500-meter race.
"My goal was just to get to Vancouver. I did that and the medals were just a bonus," he told the Associated Press. "This time, I'm going to Sochi healthy and I'm looking forward to doing some damage."
He’ll have some familiar company, likely contending for a medal with former Ohno rival Ahn Hyun-Soo of Korea, who now goes by Viktor Ahn and is competing for Russia after a falling-out with the Korean federation. Ahn missed the 2010 Games with an injury but is near the top of the world rankings at multiple distances.
Ohno, the most-decorated Winter Olympian with eight medals, became a mainstream celebrity by winning Dancing With the Stars. Retired from skating, Ohno is now working the Games for NBC.
This is the first of a probable four events Celski will skate as the top American here. Winner of the Olympic trials at all three distances (500, 1000 and 1,500 meters, where he won bronze in 2010), Celski should be a lock to be named to the 5000-meter relay, an event that produced a U.S. bronze medal in Vancouver.
Ahn figures to be just one of a host of challengers for medals in Sochi that include members of a perennially strong Korea team and Canadian brothers Charles and Francois Hamelin. That doesn’t even include the usual drama of a sport characterized by pack-style racing on an ice sheet.
For the next 11 days, Celski will embark on a marathon of sprints that could just as easily be disastrous as triumphant. Short track’s tight corners, close quarters and high speeds make for great theater, as well as an appreciation for how thin the line is between winning and losing—making consistent winners like Ohno as much a mystery as a marvel.
Celski, ranked in the world’s top 10 in the 1000 and 1500 meters and No. 13 in the 500, knows how capricious the sport can be. He has experienced first-hand the worst and the best.
Five months before the 2010 Olympics, Celski suffered a horrifying and near-fatal injury. He fell during the 500, the final race of the Olympic trials. His skate blade punctured his leg, causing a six-inch deep gouge. It sliced through his quad muscle, just missing his femoral artery, and took dozens of stitches to heal. He thought his Olympic run was over. But he moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for full-time, nearly round-the-clock rehab, making it to the 2010 start line.
In the 2010 Games’ 1500-meter final, Celski was in fifth place when 2006 silver medalist Lee Ho-Suk collided with teammate Sung Si-Bak on the final turn of the race. Celski and Ohno somehow managed to avoid the wreck, and Ohno wound up with silver and Celski bronze. More drama came in the 1000, when Celski was disqualified for knocking down Francois Hamelin.
After the Olympics, burned out from the comeback and sick of the skater’s life, Celski quit.
He had been racing since he was little, showing such promise that he moved away from his tight-knit family in Federal Way, Washington, at age 14 to train in California with Wilma Boomstra, former Dutch skater and renowned coach.
His retirement lasted about a year. He had been accepted to Cal-Berkeley, but he asked for a deferment. Celski had become enamored of Seattle’s hip-hop scene and wound up co-producing and helping film a documentary called The Otherside, which made the roster at last spring’s Seattle International Film Festival.
Before the project, Celski didn’t know much about holding a camera or filming. But he did know what could resonate with people—the film features then-little-known duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who won multiple Grammys this year
Celski said he connected with Macklemore’s lyrics while recovering from his skating injury. The film was released for live streaming last week.
Celski said his accident, time away and subsequent return to skating have rejuvenated him. He’s eager to skate, to train, to compete. And to return to skating’s biggest stage, whether he makes a bigger name for himself or not in Sochi.
Meri-Jo Borzilleri covered four Olympic Games for the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Seattle Times.