J.R. Celski skates in the first men's 1,000-meter semifinal during the U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials this month at the Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)
Apolo Anton Ohno took his soul patch, bandanas and eight Olympic medals into retirement, leaving a gaping hole in American short track speedskating.
J.R. Celski is poised to step into the void as the country’s best hope for a medal in the wild and wooly sport known as roller derby on ice.
The 23-year-old from Federal Way, Wash., will compete at his second Olympics looking to add to the pair of bronze medals he won at the 2010 Vancouver Games, when Ohno was ending his career as America’s most decorated Winter Olympian.
Celski qualified in all three distances for Sochi, Russia, in addition to the 5,000-meter relay. He’s ranked among the world’s top 10 in the 1,000 and 1,500, and just outside the top 10 in the 500.
This time, Celski is healthy heading to the Olympics. At the U.S. trials four years ago, his right skate sliced his left leg in a crash, spewing blood on the ice. He bruised his femoral artery and came close to severing it, which could have been fatal.
The accident required six hours of daily physical therapy, which robbed him of practice time. But he bounced back five months later to make the podium in Vancouver.
“My goal was just to get to Vancouver. I did that and the medals were just a bonus,” he said. “This time, I’m going to Sochi healthy and I’m looking forward to doing some damage.”
Celski took a year off after Vancouver to re-establish his goals and mind-set. Once he returned and started winning races, he rekindled the love he had for the sport. He welcomes assuming leadership of the U.S. men’s team from Ohno, who mentored Celski and remains one of his biggest supporters.
“I am very happy to be in the position I am now. I looked up to that guy for a long time,” said Celski, who like Ohno is from the Seattle area. “This time is completely different for me mentally, physically, I’m healthy. I’m going to ride that momentum.”
In Vancouver, a team led by Ohno and now-retired Katherine Reutter earned a total of six medals — two silver and four bronze — to trail only powerhouse South Korea in the standings.
The Americans will be hard-pressed to equal that showing in Russia, but the men have the stronger team.
Unlike the U.S. women, who didn’t qualify a relay team for Sochi, the U.S. men will be a gold-medal favorite in the 5,000 relay. Celski will be joined by Eddy Alvarez, Kyle Carr, Chris Creveling and Jordan Malone in making up the team. The Americans were top-ranked during the World Cup season.
“We all practice together every day and that’s going to make a huge difference,” Celski said.
Their togetherness is in stark contrast to the turmoil that roiled the U.S. short track program beginning in 2012.
Coach Jae Su Chun was accused by a dozen national team members of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. He also was alleged to have ordered speedskater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of a Canadian rival.
Chun denied all allegations, and other members of the team came to his defense. He’s serving a two-year suspension through October, and Jessica Smith is the only skater he coaches to have made the Olympic team. He plans to be in the stands in Sochi, although he won’t be allowed inside the racing area.
Celski was among Chun’s accusers.
“Everybody had their choice,” Celski said.
Canadian Stephen Gough was brought in to oversee the fractured national program, and tread lightly in trying to bring cohesion in the months leading up to Sochi.
“He made sure that the right people were in place,” Celski said of Gough’s staffing choices. “They’re a lot of the reason why we are the team we are today. Everybody is meshing really well together. That’s what the biggest change has been in the past 1½ years is really figuring out who are the key people that are going to raise this team’s spirits.”
Like Ohno, who had varied interests off the ice, Celski is into music and filmmaking. Last year, he produced “The Other Side,” a documentary featuring Grammy-winning duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and other hip hop acts in the Pacific Northwest.
Having endured the turmoil to make a second Olympics, Celski is now optimistic enough to consider the future.
“I love to speed skate,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I convince myself to keep going.”
Brazilian out of Olympics
A Brazilian gymnast who was expected to compete in freestyle skiing at the Sochi Olympics is unable to move her arms or legs and can’t breathe on her own after she hit a tree while skiing in Utah this week, doctors said Thursday.
Lais Souza, 25, is fighting for her life and will definitely miss the Olympics, said Brazilian team doctor Antonio Marttos at a news conference in Salt Lake City.
She was injured Monday when she hit a tree while skiing recreationally in Park City, Utah, in an accident that doctors said could have happened to anybody. She was not injured while practicing her freestyle maneuvers.
Doctors aren’t declaring Souza paralyzed at this point, but recognize that’s a possibility. She dislocated a vertebrae near the top of her spine, said Dr. Andrew Dailey, a neurosurgeon with University of Utah Health Care. She remains in critical condition, still using a breathing machine and unable to talk.
“She is fighting for her life,” said Marttos, a trauma surgeon at the University of Miami Health System.
Souza has no feeling in her arms or legs, said Dailey, who said it’s still too soon to know whether she’ll regain feeling.
“People can recover, but it simply takes time to know if that’s going to happen,” said Dailey, explaining that people sometimes get feeling back weeks, months or even years later.
The young Brazilian, who participated in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics as a gymnast, has been skiing for about six months, Marttos said.
Six-time Olympic medalist Rebecca Soni retired from swimming Thursday.
The 26-year-old American plans to launch a new lifestyle company and blog instead of making an attempt at her third Olympics.
Soni took an extended break after the London Games, but left open the possibility of returning to the pool. Finally, with about 2½ years to go until the 2016 Olympics, she decided to retire.
“I know I’ve conquered my goals in the pool, and now it’s time to conquer something else,” she said.
Soni won the 200-meter breaststroke at the last two Olympics while taking back-to-back silvers in the 100 breast. She also was part of medley relay teams that won gold in Beijing and the silver in London.
She is best known for becoming the first woman to break 2 minutes, 20 seconds in the 200 breast.
... Australian media reports say five-time Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe has checked into a rehab facility in Sydney while battling depression and alcohol abuse.
News Corporation says the 31-year-old Thorpe was admitted to hospital on Wednesday after being injured in a fall. The news organization quoted a friend of Thorpe as saying “he had an accident at home. He slipped and hurt himself. We’re hoping he’s going to be OK and make a full recovery.”
Thorpe has been living in Switzerland for the past 18 months but returned to Sydney to spend the Christmas period with family.
In his autobiography, released last year, Thorpe said he spent much of his life battling “crippling” depression.
... The U.S. figure skaters will do some of their training for the Sochi Olympics in Austria.
Barbara Reichert, the spokeswoman for U.S. Figure Skating, says the organization secured ice time two years ago at a training facility in Europe “to allow additional practice time for American athletes to prepare for the Olympic Winter Games. This is a very common practice at the Olympics and is not in response to any security issues.”
The athletes will still practice during their regular time slots in Sochi, with additional skating to be done in Austria. Reichert says this has been done before: At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the team trained outside of Utah. Same thing at the 2006 Turin Olympics and four years ago in Vancouver.
... A day after the head of the Sochi organizing committee appeared to contradict IOC president Thomas Bach on the rights of Olympic athletes to freely express themselves at news conferences, organizers issued a back-pedaling statement Thursday “to clarify” their position.
Dmitry Chernyshenko said Wednesday that he didn’t think athletes were allowed to speak about non-sporting issues at official Olympic news conferences. On Monday, Bach said athletes would be free to do so.
“The Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee would like to clarify comments attributed to Dmitry Chernyshenko yesterday concerning athletes being able to express themselves during press conferences. Sochi 2014 are fully aligned with the position of the International Olympic Committee,” the committee said in a statement.
“Mr. Chernyshenko simply meant that athletes are free to express themselves at a press conference — but of course they cannot use a press conference to make a demonstration or protest — similarly, they cannot use any Olympic venue to demonstrate.”
Athletes are forbidden from making political demonstrations or gestures on the medal stand and at other venues by the Olympic Charter. But there has been some concern that athletes in Sochi may try to protest against the Russian law banning gay “propaganda” among minors.
... It doesn’t matter that Zimbabwe has seen a sprinkling of snow only once, and it wasn’t even in Luke Steyn’s lifetime.
The 20-year-old Steyn still will be the southern African country’s first Winter Olympics athlete when he races in the slalom and giant slalom at the 2014 Games in Sochi.
Highland Park, Ill., has declared Feb. 7 “Jason Brown Day” and suburban Chicago residents plan to wear ribbons and put them on their door knobs and trees to honor the figure skater.