KEARNS, Utah — Jessica Smith, fulfilled and exhausted, misconnected on one part of Friday's Olympic-bound celebration.
The high-five. Reaching above a padded barrier that separated her from a coach, Jae-Su Chun, she barely made any contact at all in a jubilant effort at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating.
Smith won't be missing another Olympic Winter Games, though. After narrowly missing out in 2010, the Michigan native rekindled focus and a great appreciation for what it was going to take to reach Sochi.
She pulled out a second-place finish in the final 1,500-meter race Friday night at the Utah Olympic Oval that secured her place in Russia. Smith finished behind winner Emily Scott but a lead in the overall point standings earned her a nomination to the 2014 U.S. Olympic Short Track Speedskating Team that will also have two more women by the end of the weekend, along with five men. All nominations are pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee.
"This has been a long time coming," said Smith, who conceded she skated conservatively in the last couple of heats just to make sure she realized the ultimate goal of making the team.
|Jessica Smith leads Katherine Ralston and Lana Gehring in the first
1,500-meter semifinal during the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for
Short Track Speedskating at the Utah Olympic Oval on
Jan. 3, 2014 in Kearns, Utah.
It was her consistency that allowed her to reach a point that she didn't have to make any bold moves on a selection day in order to realize the dream that drew her to move to Utah to train full-time not long after her heartbreak of failing to get to Vancouver.
"It's been a rough road getting here, but we're on our way," Smith said.
She praised her coach, the embattled Chun, who has been suspended two years by the International Skating Union for charges of verbal abuse and sabotage. Chun wasn't allowed to be near the racers, but he was in a public area where he could make contact with Smith at the end of the race.
Smith also was aided by a little Miley Cyrus and Eminem — "all the pump-up songs" — as she kept the same simple routine that had her flying around the ice the previous day; a personal best. Her day included a light job and lunch.
All she had to do was do what she had been doing for months now: Follow her coach's advice, and keep being herself. She entered the event as the favorite and will now for certain get a chance to be part of Sochi in the 500- and 1,500-meter because of the number of the three spots available to Team USA in those two distances. Work still remains this weekend to get a third race (1,000, where two U.S. women will compete in Sochi).
"It's always harder to be on top,” Smith said of fulfilling expectations that her times created the last few years. “It's always hard to stay on top… but that's what true champions do. They stay on top.”
On the men's side, it was J.R. Celski that breezed to Sochi — his second Olympic bid.
The first 1,500-meter final included falls by Travis Jayner and Kyle Carr. Celski emerged unscathed, shaking a fist in exaltation as he crossed the finish line first. He was even smoother in the second final.
''To cross the line and realize I got a spot for Sochi was amazing,'' Celski said. ''There was definitely a little bit more pressure than last time. But I'm taking it more serious than last time, as well.''
At the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Celski took home a couple of bronze medals (1,500; 5,000 relay).
He is now making a talked-about effort to be part of replacing his idol, Apolo Ohno, an eight-time Olympic medalist who has been attending the event this week as a TV commentator. The connection is even greater considering they both hail from the same suburban Seattle hometown, Federal Way.
Though he was getting a second Olympic nomination, Celski carried just as big of a smile as Smith.
The 500-meter world record holder carried a different kind of pressure, albeit an expensive one. He said his parents have openly talked about logistical questions of getting to Russia — their plans, visas, all of that.
Celski, who was seriously injured right before the Vancouver Games, wasn't taking anything for granted. It's also easy to point out that falling in short-track is a fairly common occurrence. In the second round of the 1,500, John-Henry Krueger, who is ranked No. 9 in the world, fell for the second time Friday.
Every time travel came up, Celski pointed out he hadn't even been assured a bid yet.
His time came Friday in the night's final race. He posted a blistering send-off party.
"I looked back, and I was like ‘what happened?’" Celski said. "It was cool. I went out there and raced my race."
And he could start helping his family navigate a new land.
"I'm glad that I'm able to join them over there," he said.
Jason Franchuk is a writer from Salt Lake City. He is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.