Carnage on Ice: Short Track Speed Skating Style

Tom BurkeCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 13:  Speed skater J.R. Celski poses for a portrait during the NBC/USOC Promotional Photo Shoot on May 13, 2009 at Smashbox Studios  in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

With blood gushing from his severed leg, J.R. Celski screamed in agony. Fellow short track speedskaters rushed to his writhing body to offer temporary solace. As the entire crowd gasped, medics struggled to stop the bleeding before speeding him to the hospital for emergency surgery.

For several minutes, competition at the recent U.S. Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Trials was halted, to allow time for the calming of nerves and the repairing of the stained track.

Celski, a 19-year-old phenom from Federal Way, Washington, was seeking to solidify a spot on the Vancouver Olympics squad at these trials held in Marquette, Michigan on September 12. 

During the 500 meter semifinal race, where four racers were maneuvering for position on this tight 111-meter oval, he took a turn too tight, slid off the track, and careened into the barriers. In the midst of this tortuous slide, his knife-like, right skate blade severed his unprotected left leg’s muscle, just below the knee. A few hours later, he was recovering from an operation that will take him weeks to recuperate and rehabilitate from.

Horrific short track speedskating injuries are far from uncommon. A few studies have reported on the high frequency of injuries to the head, spine, and extremities—with a sizable percentage of these identified as severe.                                                         

The breakneck speeds around tight, slippery turns force each athlete to practically skate in a prone sideways position. And it is during these momentary and precarious flashes in which a pack of skaters is seeking to gain any edge, that wipeouts are likely to occur. 

More Gruesome Tales

Oftentimes, a skater is injured by another racer who has legally or illegally interfered—sending the victim into the cushioned, yet unforgiving boards.

This unfortunate scenario almost prevented another U.S. elite skater from competing in these Olympic Trials—a goal she’s pursued since competing at the Turin 2006 Olympics. 

Allison Baver severely fractured her leg due to a race collision at an event this past February.  Despite lingering ailments that she is likely to never fully recover from, she fought through the pain, stiffness, and rustiness to earn another spot on the Vancouver team.

Similarly, a former short-tracker, Trevor Marsicano, suffered a similar gruesome gash in his leg that was spurred by another skater’s blade during a race in 2004. While splayed on the ice, his thigh bone was visible, and nearly 50 percent of his body’s blood volume surged out. 

Although returning to short track racing a few months later after his surgery, Marsicano reflected in a previous Chicago Tribune interview, “I was able to skate again in three months, but it took me a full year to get back to 100 percent physically and mentally.”

After failing to earn a berth on the American short track 2006 Olympics unit, he switched to the safer long track sport where he is favored to medal at the Vancouver Olympics.

Equipment to the Rescue?

To minimize injuries such as these, a short tracker wears a helmet, gloves, knee pads, and shin guards. However, the aerodynamic, lightweight lycra bodysuit is no match for the razor-sharp steel blades, that are designed for cutting grooves in the ice, yet capable of slicing through thigh and calf muscles.

And each year, stronger and sharper style blades are designed for those competitors eager to get a leg up on the competition. 

With an eye towards profits, the International Olympic Committee added this extreme sport to its lineup at the Lillehammer 1994 Olympics. And ever since, the sport has become more and more dangerous—not just for these Olympians, but also for youth seeking the same fame as their role model, Celski.

Something has got to give. The surging technology of skate blades has far outraced the trifling advances in the safety and practicality of protective clothing.

The potential visual of a bloodied, injured Vancouver Olympic skater being rushed to a hospital, as witnessed by hundreds of millions of TV viewers worldwide, may well indeed spear the Short Track sport to take corrective action.