Kearns • J.R. Celski stalked the pack, keeping both his arms behind his back and peeked deep into the huddle of six skaters. He was cool and collected and stuck to his technique that launched him into the stratosphere of an Olympic medalist.
On the seventh lap, Celski made his move.
Darting out of the pack, the 23-year-old short-track speedskating star burst in front to the roar of a swarming Utah Olympic Oval crowd. From there, Celski’s lead only increased. His technique kept him distanced from the other 1,500-meter finalists hoping for a chance to establishing themselves as Sochi-bound.
In the final lap of his third victory Friday night, Celski looked back and didn’t know what happened or how he suddenly was so far ahead. That is, until he crossed the finish line with his ticket punched, both hands pointed to the large section of the stands packed with family members and fans. He pointed to them, smiled and pumped his chest before blowing kisses to the crowd.
“I went out there and raced my race,” Celski said.
Get to know Salt Lake City resident J.R. Celski — he’ll be the guy replacing an eight-time Olympic medalist. For the first time in 16 years, the short-track program will be without Apolo Anton Ohno, who burst onto the scene in the 2002 Games in Utah.
Celski’s domination in the men’s 1,500-meter event in the short-track qualifier Friday was just further proof that he’ll be the face of the U.S. squad. He’s been on the World Cup team since 2008 and qualified for the World Championship team every year since 2009.
He’s won seven world championship medals and 16 World Cup medals and owns the world record in the 500-meter sprint.
“I feel really like it’s happening right now, that he’s coming into his own with his own identity,” said coach Stephen Gough. “Not as the next Apolo, but the first J.R.”
Following the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Celski figured Ohno would hang the skates up. At the ripe age of 19 following earning two bronze medals in Vancouver, he wanted the responsibility of leading.
“I tried to resume [Ohno’s] role and kind of take it over as best I could,” he said. “I really wanted to step up and lead this team because I knew I could.”
Celski heads into Sochi in February as a medal favorite in several short-track events, but getting back to the Games and earning a berth on the squad wasn’t smooth sailing over tranquil seas. He bounced back from a horrific crash in the months leading up to Vancouver — one that left one of his skates six inches into his left quad, severing the muscle entirely.
He bounced back and he became a better skater.
“I faced a lot of adversity,” Celski said. “Of course, we do every day, in any kind of sport or any kind of thing in life. I’m prepared for that.”
Childhood friend and fellow short-tracker skater Eddy Alvarez has noticed the switch go off for one of his closest colleagues. Alvarez, who finished second in the the 1,500-meter event Friday, said he sees Celski as the “strongest man in the world” in speedskating.
“He’s just about as flawless as it gets on the ice,” Alvarez said.
That was on full display at the Olympic Oval in the first of three qualifying races this weekend. Crossing the finish line with no other skater in sight certified Celski’s night, and those to come soon and in Sochi.
“Short track and speedskating is about being efficient, and he’s kind of the benchmark of that,” Gough said.
Like Ohno before him, Celski is now ready to accept the challenge of being a medal favorite every four years on the world’s stage. And it was only fitting that Ohno was in the broadcast booth calling Celski’s blistering final few laps.
“I looked up to that guy my whole life,” Celski said. “It’s cool to finally see what he had faced his whole life.”
O At Utah Olympic Oval
10 a.m. Saturday • Men’s and women’s 500
10 a.m. Sunday • Men’s and women’s 1,000