J.R. Celski might be the next superstar American athlete to come from the world of short-track speedskating, but he's not quite there yet.
On Monday in Sochi, Celski finished in fourth place in the 1,500 meters. He led the race for a few laps in the final, but ultimately couldn't hold on to the medal he wanted so badly.
It was a disappointing finish for the 23-year-old. He won the bronze in the event four years ago in Vancouver when he was a less well-known skater, and the Associated Press, via the Detroit Free Press, had predicted that he would pick up the bronze this year as well.
But short-track speedskating is a capricious event that often comes down to centimeters on the track and milliseconds on the clock, and nothing is ever given.
Nobody knows that better than Celski. For him, no measurement means more than an inch.
Four-and-a-half years ago at the U.S. Olympic Trials for short-track speedskating, Celski suffered a nasty fall in the 500-meter race and landed with the blade of his skate in his thigh.
As he removed the skate and the blood poured out of his leg, Celski thought that his Olympic dreams had ended before they could even begin.
Despite the blood, it turns out that his blade had primarily cut muscle. Had it hit the main artery an inch away, Celski could have bled out in minutes.
One inch not only saved his speedskating career, it also saved his life.
In just five months, Celski was able to come through an extensive rehab program and take his well-earned spot on the Vancouver team. There, he ended up winning the bronze in the 1,500 and another bronze in the 5,000-meter relay.
The four years since Vancouver haven't been all smooth skating for Celski. Still a teenager at the time, he was completely burned out after his comeback from injury and Olympic triumph and took a break from the sport.
He used his time off the ice to explore other passions. He produced a hip-hop documentary about the Seattle music scene. He became friends with Macklemore. He got to be a kid.
Then, in 2011, he decided he was ready to skate fast again.
With a renewed passion for the sport and the 2014 Games in his sight, he was able to overcome a broken left ankle in 2012 and the recent turmoil of the U.S. short-track speedskating program to set himself up as a medal contender in Sochi.
But for the star-hungry U.S. media, a contender isn't enough. They want Celski to be a star.
For the entirety of his career up until this point, Celski has been a bit lost in the looming shadow of Apolo Ohno. They were both born in the same Seattle suburb, and Celski was only 11 years old when Ohno won his first World Cup title.
Ohno, of course, went on to become the most decorated American athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics before retiring after the 2010 Games. Since, he's become a mega crossover celebrity.
During that time, Celski grew up and became the fastest U.S. short-track skater on this side of Ohno's retirement.
The comparisons between the two are only natural, and coming into these Games, Beth Harris of the Associated Press, via The Columbia Dispatch, reported that Celski was flattered by them and excited about his prospects in Sochi: "I am very happy to be in the position I am now. I looked up to [Ohno] for a long time. [The Sochi Olympics are] completely different for me mentally, physically, I’m healthy. I’m going to ride that momentum."
But so far, the only difference between Vancouver and Sochi is that Celski actually managed to sneak onto the podium in the 1,500 meters in 2010, while on Monday, he was on the outside looking in.
Being fourth in the world in an event is nothing to hang your head about, of course, but it's also not the type of performance that is going to make American fans stop missing Ohno.
Celski has three more chances to prove to himself and to the world that he is ready to be the next big star in American short-track. On Saturday, he will compete in the 1,000-meter finals, and on Friday, Feb. 21 he'll have a chance to compete in the 500-meter race and the 5,000-meter relay.
So even though he came up short on Monday, the opportunities are still there for Celski in Sochi.
He still has a chance to make a name for himself beyond the infamous injury and outside of the Ohno comparisons.
He still has a chance to become a superstar in his own right. He's just going to have to skate his way onto a podium or two in order for that to happen.
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