SALT LAKE CITY -- If the sport of short track speedskating is going to continue to grow in popularity, events like the Apolo Ohno Invitational will help turn casual fans into enthusiastic supporters — like the Stevenettes of Salt Lake City.
Natalie Stevenette brought her two daughters — 9-year-old Brooklyn and 6-year-old Bailey — to EnergySolutions Arena for the event Friday night. Brooklyn and Bailey Stevenette are on a local competitive synchronized skating team. But they had never seen short track speedskating.
“I like it,” Natalie Stevenette said, “and I thought they’d enjoy it because of how much they skate.”
She said the girls had just come from a two-hour workout and had three more hours of skating scheduled for Saturday morning.
“We live on the ice,” Natalie Stevenette said.
A vendor selling T-shirts told the girls to cheer loud for American John-Henry Krueger, her best friend on the team. Krueger came through with an exciting win in the men’s 1,000-meter final.
The 19-year-old phenom finished second in his semifinal heat but took the lead immediately in the final and never relinquished it.
“There were lots of strong skaters in that race, so I didn’t want to be behind in the race to mess around with a collision,” Krueger said. “I decided to take a simpler but harder approach by leading up in the front. The guys behind me were fighting and it paid off to stay in front, even though it required a little more work.”
Krueger was pushed going into the final lap and stumbled momentarily but regained his balance and stayed in the lead.
“Skaters can slip or get bumped, and I lost my balance,” Krueger said. “We train for hours every day so we learn quickly how to recover from a slip or bump.”
Besides taking the lead early, Kruger credited winning to a relaxed approach to the race.
“I was keeping my tempo calm,” Krueger said. “It was a rough race. I got bumped from behind and just kept on skating. I didn’t panic. I just pushed through my tracks and won the race.”
And took home a nice paycheck, too.
“I’m $5,000 richer now,” Krueger said.
The Apolo Ohno Invitational was a first of its kind “race-for-pay” event, with $5,000 going to the winners, $3,000 to second place and $1,000 to third. Events included the 500- and 1,000-meter races for both men and women, along with the 3,000-meter relay for the women and the 5,000-meter relay for the men. Athletes from the United States, Canada, China and the Netherlands competed.
“My goal was to do two things,” said Ohno, was worked as color commentator for the television broadcast on NBCSN. “No. 1, I wanted to market the sport, make it bigger at the grass roots level. I wanted to get people involved, get people excited and get people to see the sport. People just need to see it more.
“The second part is, let’s make it exciting. Let’s get the athletes a chance to compete for real money, let’s get something on the line. Athletes made more tonight in two hours than they will make all season. I want to quadruple this for next year. I love this sport. It’s in my blood, so whatever I can do to pump this thing up. We have a chance to make something happen here.”
2002 Olympic medalist long track speedskater Derek Parra worked the crowd, introducing other former skaters in the audience such as Dan Jansen and Eddy Alvarez.
Parra also interviewed athletes after their races, including American Jessica Smith, the third-place finisher in the women’s 1,000-meter final. When Smith commented that she won “bronze,” Parra corrected her: “Bronze? Bronze in this arena means $1,000, baby!”
“This was exciting,” Smith said. “It’s always good to showcase our sport like this, to have the opportunity to have the best in the world compete. It’s just a thrill.”
Smith and her teammates cheered wildly when Krueger won the 1,000-meter men’s final. Krueger and Smith both train with Salt Lake International and are coached by Jae Su Chun.
“John-Henry is an up-and-coming skater,” Smith said. “I’m excited to see his training pay off, to show where and who we train with really pays off. The hard work pays off.”
Team USA claimed second in both the men’s 5,000-meter relay and the women’s 3,000-meter relay events.
Mascots skated and entertained the crowd throughout the night. During lulls in the action videos played on the big screens, helping fans develop closer relationships with the athletes of Team USA. They learned about the athletes’ favorite music and that American Kimberly Goetz really loves pancakes. The event also included a skate by Special Olympics athletes, who were joined by Ohno and Olympic medalists Eddy Alvarez, Allison Baver, Chris Creveling and Travis Jayner.
When the night was completed, athletes threw T-shirts to the fans and Ohno said he was pleased with the results.
“It was tough because we were working on a really tight time budget, and there were a lot of factors against us,” he said. “I can’t even explain to you how many things were against us, but I think we had success. This was the first event and the first events are always the hardest.
“I think the most important part is to take that first step forward, to make this event actually happen. We know what we need to improve for next year, and now everybody’s got the bug. I hope to make it bigger and bigger. My goal someday is to sell this place out, like the Olympic Games 13 years ago in Salt Lake.”