Skating hasn’t always been smooth for J.R. Celski.
At the Olympic Trials for short track speedskating in 2009, he was involved in a crash in which his left thigh was deeply slashed by his right skate, leaving his status in doubt for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Then last December, he broke an ankle in a pileup while racing in Japan and had to take about six weeks off before getting back on his blades.
But just as he did after that first injury, Celski, 22, has come back strong.
At the Vancouver Winter Games, five months after suffering a six-inch long gash that required 60 stitches, he captured a bronze medal in the 1,500 meters and another bronze in the 5,000-meter relay.
Now, two stops into this season’s World Cup schedule, Celski already has earned four medals and a world record.
Racing in the first World Cup event in Calgary in mid-October, Celski broke the 40-second barrier in the 500 meters, taking gold with a time of 39.973. He also earned a bronze in the 1,000m.
A week later at Montreal, Celski earned the silver medal in the 1,500 and added a bronze as part of the 5,000-meter relay team.
Becoming the first skater to break 40 seconds in the 500 was an unexpected but thrilling accomplishment, he said. The 500 is a race he rarely enters. He prefers the longer distances.
“I really didn’t have too many expectations, especially going into the 500, to break the world record,” Celski said. “You have a lot of guys going out there every race to try and break it. I just really wanted to test my skills in the 500 and see how I fared against everybody else …
“I think that’s why it came to me like it did. So by the time the final came around I had my strategy planned out and executed it, so looking up at the board (after finishing) was a shock to me, since no one else had gone under that 40-second barrier before. It was just really exciting.”
Although the 500 isn’t part of his regular race schedule, he wanted to compete in it at Calgary in part because the ice there might be the fastest in the world. He said he’s long heard from other skaters about the quality of the ice, and then he saw world-record times posted by the Canadian team at the venue earlier this year.
“I thought, ‘I want to try this out. I can’t pass up an opportunity like this,’” he recalled. “So I got to Calgary and the ice was really fast, faster than I had ever skated on any surface before. I knew there were going to be fast times.”
The care the technicians took with the racing surface was impressive, he said. He had a chance to meet and talk with them, and came away impressed with the work they did.
When he talks about the world record, he tries to re-direct any praise toward them rather than himself. He said they seemed to take as much pride in the world record as he did.
“They were really excited somebody went under 40 there,” he said.
Yet Celski was the one on the track, sprinting against a strong field in a sport he likens to “NASCAR on 18-inch daggers” and crossing the finish line to beat his opponents and the clock.
If anyone needed proof that Celski was back up to speed after the ankle injury, the world record was it.
Today, he said, the ankle isn’t a concern.
“They said it would take about nine months to a year to heal, so I’m at that point now where it’s not really giving me problems any more,” he said.
Which means Celski is on track toward his goal of making the U.S. team for next Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.
After competing in Vancouver, Celski took a season off to work on a film, “The Otherside,” a documentary about the hip-hop scene in Seattle (which is scheduled to make its debut at several film festivals in 2013). He then came back to his sport reinvigorated and intent on competing in Sochi. The injury last year set him back, but now he’s off and running.
The kid who grew up in Federal Way, Wash., switched to short track speedskating from inline skating and has won nine World Championship medals (including two golds), is hungry for more.
“I came back to skating after the last Olympics only because I missed it, that love for the sport drew me back,” he said. “So, honestly, I want to get out there and give the best that I can and be the best skater and athlete that I can.”
He said he believes he’s not only become a better skater, but he’s much stronger in other ways.
“I’ve certainly grown mentally over the past couple of years, especially going through those injuries,” said Celski, whose next races will come at the World Cup event in Nagoya, Japan, at the end of this month. “As any athlete can tell you, there’s going to be some challenges and bumps along the way, and I’ve learned how to handle them mentally more than anything.”