Meet J.R. Celski: A Filipino-American with the Heart of a Lion

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Meet J.R. Celski: A Filipino-American with the Heart of a Lion
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

One of the highlights for the USA wasn't just Apolo Anton Ohno making history with his silver in the 1,500 meters in short track or the combo of Hannah Kearney putting an America sandwich on Canada's Jennifer Heil in the women's moguls.

For me, the biggest highlight of Day 2 was the heroics of J.R. Celski, a young Filipino-American. Now the reason why he get a fist pump to the sky from me is not because he shares similar initials (woot woot) or that he graduated from the same high school I did (Celski is a member of the Lakewood High Class of 2008), but the fact that he not only won a bronze medal, but literally went through the dark valley to earn it.

See, what people must realize about the best Olympians is that they need not win gold to be the best. They have to have the heart of a lion. J.R. Celski has the heart of a lion on his way to earning a bronze in Vancouver.

Celski was born in Monterey, Calif. His father, Robert Celski, served in the U.S. Army and married a Filipina named Sue. J.R. is the youngest of three brothers in the family, the other two being Chris and David.

When he was young, Celski was an ace at in-line skating. His speed and tactics earned him many plaudits in the youth in-line circuit. But it was in 2002 that he watched Ohno compete at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

As Celski watched Apolo grace the turns, salvage a silver in the 1,000 and skate to gold in the 1,500 meters, it was clear to J.R. that his future lay in short track.

And like a young lion gaining his mane, he broke loose. The experience he had blitzing past his competition on roller blades became a sweeping transition to silver blades.

Even though he missed the minimum-age requirment for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin by just over a fortnight, a bronze medal in the 500 meters at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Romania was a sign of things to come.

At the 2009 World Championships in Vienna, Celski skated to gold in the 3,000 meters and also earned another a member of the 5,000 meter relay team. He also cruised to bronze medals in the 1,000 and 1,500 meters.

At the 2009 World Junior Championships in Quebec, J.R. Celski was at it again, earning a gold in the 500 meters and another with the 3,000 meter relay team.

That set things up for the 2010 Winter Olympics Trials in Marquette, Mich. While Celski qualified for the 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters, he was injured in a crash during the semifinals of the 500 meters. A right skate slashed into his left leg.

As he was carried off to the hospital, Celski wondered if he was going to be healed in time to join his mentor Ohno in Vancouver. It turned out that the man upstairs had a plan for the young lion from Monterey.

In heat 3 of the 1,500 meters, Celski finished second to Lee Sung-Su to advance to the semi-finals. And in the semi-finals, Celski was able to just second behind another Korea, Sung Si-Bak, to advance to the final.

However, in the last lap of the 1,500 meters at the Pacific Coliseum, it looked as if the Korea trio of Lee Jung-Su, Sung Si-Bak, and Lee Ho-Suk would make it was 1-2-3 finish for South Korea. And it was a certainty that Celski's ambition of earning a medal would have to wait.

One must realize, however, that the sport of short track speed skating has a nasty tendency to throw curve balls as a habit. Spills occur. Nothing is certain. An anonymous observer put it simply, "That's short track."

Even Celski realized that he was never safe from not staying on his skates during the trials. Thankfully, it was not gonna happen to him tonight.

With Ohno ahead, and both Sung and Lee Ho-Suk behind, the latter two's skates tangled, allowing Ohno to achieve his personal record for the most medals by an American at a winter Olympic Games.

And it also gave young J.R. Celski, the lion who overcame injury and uncertainty to come to Vancouver, his first-ever Olympic medal.

It was the symbol of six months gone full circle. Celski's toughness and perseverance allowed him to skate away from pain and tragedy, and into triumph and redemption.

Could J.R. Celski be the next great short track hero from the USA? With the foundation set, and renewed sense of confidence, you'd better believe that when he hits the ice, this rising star with a lion-sized heart is on the prowl and will be hungry for more.

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