KEARNS, Utah — Following a third consecutive day of dominant short track speedskating on Sunday, J.R. Celski pulled on a Seattle Seahawks jersey.
It was a fitting tribute, as both the skater and his favorite NFL team find themselves in similar situations during this first weekend of 2014: in the midst of standout seasons, both have checked off the first milestone in the journey to a much bigger prize.
For the Seahawks, owners’ of the best regular-season record in the NFC, the ultimate prize is the Super Bowl in February. For Celski, winner of three events this weekend at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating, the ultimate goal is to stand atop the podium at the Olympic Winter Games, also this February, in Sochi, Russia.
Celski, a Washington native, took a major step closer to that goal this weekend with his performance in Kearns, Utah, the site of the short track speedskating events at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Celski and Jessica Smith each won all three events (500 meters, 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters) to lead a group of eight U.S. athletes who will be heading to Sochi. All nominations are subject to approval from the United States Olympic Committee.
“The USA is here to play,” Celski said. “We’re here to represent.”
|The 2014 U.S. Olympic Short Track Speedskating Team (front row L-R: Eddy Alvarez, Emily Scott, Jordan Malone; back row L-R: J.R. Celski, Chris Creveling, Alyson Dudek, Kyle Carr and Jessica Smith) pose during the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating at the Utah Olympic Oval on Jan. 5, 2014 in Kearns, Utah.
The other seven nominees would say the same.
The U.S. squad is an eight-person representative of its country, with eight unique stories that brought each athlete to the Utah Olympic Oval.
Many of the 2014 U.S. Olympic speedskaters began on in-line skates before turning to ice. Since then they have overcome injuries and financial burdens, missed expectations and off-ice distractions. Over four days in Utah, however, these eight performed well enough to earn a nomination to Sochi.
Joining Celski on the men’s side are Eddy Alvarez, Chris Creveling, Kyle Carr and 2010 Olympian Jordan Malone. Celski, a two-time bronze medalist in 2010, is the team’s star, and he has a nice story to boot, having grown up in the same Seattle suburb as U.S. speedskating legend Apolo Ohno. His coach, Stephen Gough, said he believes the 23-year-old Celski is ready to show the world his identity in 2014. Alvarez, meanwhile, is a former community college baseball player from Miami. He is the first Cuban-American on the U.S. short track team.
The women have their stories, too.
Smith narrowly missed out on the Vancouver dream four years ago. She stuck through it, though, and earned her first of three nominations to Sochi on Friday. She didn’t slow down after that. By Sunday afternoon, the look in her goggle-covered eyes was that she wasn’t letting up for anything.
“It’s not my nature. I’ve never been raised that way,” said Smith, who at 30 is the veteran of the team. “My parents and my coach — he doesn’t like us to not try our hardest. Everyday is a new race and a new challenge, and a new experience.”
Joining Smith on the women’s side are Emily Scott and 2010 Olympic bronze medalist Alyson Dudek.
“I’m skating the best I’ve ever skated, so I feel good about that,” said Scott, a native of Springfield, Mo., who arrived at the trials buoyed by the support of a crowd sourcing campaign.
Creveling said the final day was “fierce” as he tried to salvage his Olympic dream after two days of penalties and falls. Carr and Malone for the men and Dudek on the women’s side required strong Sundays to advance.
Creveling happened to be the only skater this weekend who defeated Celski, winning the first 1,000-meter round on Sunday.
“The fact that I’m on the team is such a great experience,” Creveling said.
Most of the men already know each other. For example, Carr and Creveling have known each other since they were 3 years old. Celski and Alvavez have been rivals since age 6. That pair did a little good spirited Olympic-team hazing on Creveling at the awards ceremony, blistering him with celebratory champagne.
Yes, it stung like crazy. But Creveling didn’t take long to adjust his attitude.
“I kind of didn’t like that at first. But then it was just relief coming over me,” said Creveling, who’s gone from New Jersey to Michigan to Utah to achieve his goals. “I guess that was my introduction to the team. It couldn’t have gone any better.”
Now, the next phase starts: Getting even better to make an impact beyond American borders.
Creveling, for one, is feeling confident after his performance in Kearns.
“I showed myself and my family that I have what it takes,” Creveling 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.