J.R. Celski is healthy again, and it shows.
Having fully recovered from an ankle injury that ruined his season last year, the two-time Olympic bronze medalist in short-track speedskating is having the best season of his career — even amid months of scandalous turmoil within U.S. Speedskating — and figures to be a star attraction at the U.S. Short-Track Speedskating Championships that run Thursday through Saturday at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.
He could be the top American hope at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, too, presuming the legendary Apolo Anton Ohno doesn’t make a surprise return to the sport.
Celski already has won five medals on the World Cup circuit this season — four of them individual ones — to equal his best full season four years ago. He still has two competitions remaining, too, presuming he qualifies for them at the national meet this week.
The championships will decide overall national champions for men and women, as well as which athletes will compete in the last two World Cup races of the season, in Sochi and Dresden, Germany.
It also will be the last competition before former high-performance director Guy Thibault actively takes over as head coach of the splintered short-track program. He’s replacing Stephen Gough, who was appointed interim coach when former boss Jae Su Chun resigned in the wake of abuse allegations that has torn a once-close-knit team into rival factions.
Celski is among the dozen athletes who accused Chun of verbal, physical and psychological abuse, and has been training with them in a separate club program at the oval, away from the national racing program that Chun directed.
Another half-dozen skaters who supported Chun — including elite skaters Jessica Smith and Lana Gehring — have since left the federation’s official program, too, in order to rejoin Chun at a new club called Salt Lake International, where he and former assistant Jun Hyung Yeo are working as volunteer coaches.
The club trains at a Salt Lake County rec center, and skaters must pay much more of their own training costs than they did as members of the national training program.
Chun denied the abuse allegations, and an independent investigation failed to corroborate any “pattern” of abuse.
But he and Yeo resigned from U.S. Speedskating under pressure after acknowledging they knew that skater Simon Cho tampered with a rival’s skate at the world championships in Poland last year but kept it a secret. Speedskating officials are still deciding how to punish Cho, who admitted his role in the sabotage.
All of that leaves a huge job for Thibault, a two-time Olympian for Canada who has coached the U.S. long-track team as well as the Canadian short-track team. He also was the high-performance director for U.S. Speedskating for the four years before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Celski has been the only star for the Americans so far this season, with Travis Jayner and 17-year-old John-Henry Krueger the only other skaters to win World Cup medals — both bronzes — in five competitions so far.
Two-time Olympic medalist Katherine Reutter still isn’t recovered from double-hip surgery last spring, and will not compete at the event.
U.S. Short-Track Championships
Utah Olympic Oval, Kearns
Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.