Kids and adults all over the world got goose bumps in 2010 during the Olympic Games in Vancouver when J.R. Celski of USA crossed the line 3rd in Final A, capturing the bronze medal in 1500m. What makes this achievement so outstanding is the fact that just some months before the Winter Olympics the US ace of 19 had to go through the hardest time of his life: at the U.S. Short Track Speed Skating Olympic Trials he was injured during a crash in the semi-finals of the 500 m race where his right skate sliced into his left leg. Not only did he endanger his participation at the Games, but also his life. After almost bleeding out on the ice straight way, his thrilling comeback not more than 5 months later inspired thousands of people. However, since then, the world record holder of 500m lacks the spark to be on top again. J. R. Celski spoke about the ups and downs in his career.
“When I looked at my injury I thought to myself, there is no way for me to make it back. Not just for the Olympics, but in my entire life. But after my surgery I had to decide right there that I really wanted to do it. I had my friends, family and coaches with me there” – J.R. Celski remembered. He stepped on ice not more than 3 weeks before the Games in Vancouver for the first time after his injury, and exceeded all expectations during the event. “My comeback was a team effort; I really cannot attribute it to anyone specifically. It took me 2 months to believe in myself, that was when I started walking again, and told myself it could actually work. I guess there wasn’t a lot of pressure on me after that to perform well because everybody counted me out and that inspired me to push my limits”, he explained the mental process he went through. His goal being to participate at the Olympics, the bronze medal was “just the cherry on the top”, as he says.
Although 5 months earlier he thought he had lost his dreams, his story was a proof that hard work pays off, and many everyday heroes got inspired by his story. “It was really cool how many people reached out to me and told me the struggles they were going through and I helped them in some kind of way to get back on their feet. It was amazing to know that we had the ability to inspire people”, Celski said, still humble, with two feet on the ground. A smiley, calm and kind person any parents would easily recommend for their children to look up to.
But the idol, who is world record holder and was the first ever and still the one and only man to skate under 40 seconds on 500m has been struggling in the past couple of years. He did not shine at the World Championships in 2013 in Debrecen, and he could not get the best out of himself a year later at the Olympic Games in Sochi, either. J.R. Celski failed to grab an individual medal, so the pressure was growing as the team got closer to the relay event.” It was an interesting Olympics for sure. I think we were expected to do really well there, not only on short track but long track as well, but we didn’t really achieve anything on long track. It was sad to go through that, because if your teammates aren’t performing, you are kind of down about it too. We had to pull through, and get it done. We had done really well leading up to the final in the relay, and it was special to go out and win a medal with my teammates”, he explained.
Celski had shown some sparks a month after the Games at the World Championships in Montreal, however, after claiming the silver overall there, he failed to leave his mark on international scale in the years after. “I’ve been dealing with a lot of injuries in the last couple of years, it’s been hard to get through mentally but I am back on track now, so I am really happy about it. I keep going back to my teammates and my coaches and people to reassure them that everything is going to be okay” – he said. “There have been several times over the past couple of years when I wanted to quit. I have been getting to a certain level and being really competitive and then having something happen I can’t control, an injury or anything and despite of the amount of hard work I had put in I ended up coming up short. But at the end of the day, I have been really appreciative of the sport and what it has done for my life”, he smiled, adding also that after his big injury, these issues are not that tough. “I tell myself I have been through worse, I have been through something that almost took my life, anything after that is manageable”, he shared his philosophy.
No surprise: his lows in this tough period only made him hungrier for success. “I didn’t get what I wanted last time in Sochi so I came back to prove to myself that I could do it. I’ve always wanted to win”, he said. “I need to hit my short-term goals. I have a lot of goals that I have set for this season, I need to continue to make progress and a big part of it is getting into a good routine, taking up a good rhythm and staying consistent through practice and competition”, he pointed out.
And what does this World Cup mean for 27-year-old J.R. Celski on the way to his dream, the Olympic Gold? “It’s a good marker to be able to compare myself with the rest of the world and see what I need to work on individually and obviously in the relay. We don’t get a chance to compete as much as in other sports like football for instance where there are games every couple of days, so it’s really important to come out to these competitions. At these events, you need to be prepared and ready and be linked to also make mistakes which show what you need to work on.”