At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. will compete without speedskater Apolo Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympian, for the first time in three Games.
Ohno's retirement opens the door for 23-year-old J.R. Celski, the 500-meter world record-holder who is embracing his leadership role as the sport emerges from a tumultuous couple of years. He said he is more focused than four years ago when he won two Olympic bronze medals in Vancouver.
"It's an awesome feeling to be a leader on this team," he told the Tribune in a recent interview. "Big things coming in Sochi, for sure."
Celski, who grew up in Federal Way, Wash., is a former inline skater who began competing at 4. He switched to the ice when he was 12 and moved to California to train with Wilma Boomstra. By 2009, he collected five medals in a short-track world championship. At the four-day Olympic trials last month, he qualified for all three individual races in Sochi.
In 2010, Celski earned bronze in the 5,000-meter men's relay and the 1,500 meters, but he almost didn't compete. Five months earlier, he'd suffered a horrific crash at the trials, and his right skate sliced into his left leg. He bruised his femoral artery, coming within inches of severing it, with blood pouring onto the ice. His mind still occasionally flips back to that moment.
"That day really taught me about myself," he said. "It was a life lesson."
After the Games, Celski was burned out, so he took a year off. He did some soul searching, produced "The Otherside" — a documentary about the hip-hop scene in Seattle — and eventually returned more focused, even if he said he had to force himself back onto the ice at first.
"When I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted to skate again, I really approached it with a different mentality," he said. "I developed this — I don't know, like a burning love almost inside of me that I just wanted to get up and I just wanted to skate every single day and get better."
Like Celski, his four teammates train with US Speedskating's national training program. All are former inline skaters, reflecting the evolution of a sport rooted in outdoor rinks in the Midwest, and four belonged on the relay team that finished the World Cup season in first place for the first time.
"To bring a very similar team to the Games is huge," said Celski, who medaled twice on his own this season. "(We) practice every day and know each other is going to make the biggest difference in how we compete, especially in the relay."
The Winter Games come as the sport emerges from one of its most troubling eras, including a skate-tampering scandal, abuse allegations involving its former coach and an overhaul of its governing body, US Speedskating.
Celski called the whole thing "a mess" and said the team had rallied together. The success of the men's relay shows that.
"It was a very stressful season last year," he said. "I'm happy that happened last year and not this year."
Ohno, now broadcasting for NBC, told reporters at the trials that in the rough-and-tumble world of short-track, where crashing is not uncommon, Celski has potential to reach the podium in the three individual races.
"That's huge, especially coming from him," said Celski, who grew up idolizing Ohno. "I've heard that pretty much my whole life — that I could be one of the best — and it's time for me to put that into action and actually go and accomplish that because that is definitely something that I want to do."