KEARNS, Utah – The second annual Apolo Ohno Invitational accomplished its goal of showcasing the speed and excitement of short track speedskating, while providing athletes an opportunity to win prize money and gain exposure.
The event was held at the Utah Olympic Oval, home of the long track speedskating competition at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and training base for many of the U.S. athletes. It featured teams of eight athletes each from four countries – Canada, China, France and the U.S. – racing in individual distances of 500 and 1,000 meters, as well as a mixed relay across 3,000 meters. On the line was prize money of $5,000 for first place, $3,000 for second and $1,000 for third.
“We need more familiarity with it and we need more exposure to get that familiarity,” three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski said. “Events like this raise awareness and get people out here. They're going to talk about it to their friends and say, 'Short track is so cool.' Everybody knows it from the Olympics, but if we can get more events that more people out on a more frequent basis, it's going to draw attention to the sport and make it bigger.”
The Apolo Ohno Invitational will be broadcasted on NBCSN on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. MT.
Team USA’s performance Friday night was highlighted by a bronze medal in the mixed 3,000-meter relay, with a team comprised of Celski, Keith Carroll Jr., 2014 Olympian Jessica Smith-Kooreman and Kristen Santos. The U.S. finished in 4:13.521, behind teams from China and France.
Although Team USA did not experience as much success on its home ice as it had last year – when John-Henry Krueger won the 1,000-meter and Jessica Smith was third in the 1,000 – the skaters loved having a chance to compete in and support the Apolo Ohno Invitational. They appreciate the efforts made by eight-time Olympic medalist Ohno to grow the sport in the United States.
From a skater's perspective, an event like the Apolo Ohno Invitational is fun. The atmosphere is much more relaxed. It is still competitive, but there's a different sort of energy than Olympic or world cup races.
The skaters see it as a good introduction to the sport for newer fans.
“For me, it's like home,” Smith-Kooreman said. “It's energetic. You got the crowd going crazy. It's more laid back. You're going out there giving your best and you're able to just skate and not feel all the pressure from the outsiders.”
Smith-Kooreman, 32, believes the future will be bright once the next Olympics arrive in 2018.
“It is a young team and everybody is really motivated,” she said. “That gives us a good sense of direction and we're going the right way. There's a lot of experience to be gained in the next few world cups leading up to the Olympics.”
Before the semifinal heats began, a moment of silence was held for the victims of Paris terrorist attacks. 120 people died in the French capital Friday night as a result of coordinated shootings and bombings from multiple attackers.
Eight speedskaters from France traveled to Utah to compete in the Apolo Ohno Invitational. It was an ordeal for each athlete to be on the other side of the world, waiting to hear if family and friends had survived the attacks.
They were committed, however, to continue on and compete for their country amid the tragedy.
“My job is skating,” French speedskater Vincent Jeanne said. “I have to skate for my country. I hope to win for my country too. I can't do something in Paris. I will do something here for my country.”
The team from France won one silver and one bronze medal on a night where Canada and China took turns dominating on the ice.
Canada swept the podium in the men's 1,000-meter final. Charle Cournoyer took first, finishing in 1:26.741. Patrick Duffy came in second with a time of 1:26.892. Pascal Dion climbed from last to third in the final couple of laps, finishing in 1:27.064.
Celski finished fifth in the final with a time of 1:27.398. Celski actually took the lead on the third lap of the nine-lap race and maintained it for a lap or two before yielding to Cournoyer and his teammates down the stretch.
“There's always a fine line between being defensive and then going on the offensive,” Celski said. “I might have delayed and was on the defense a little too long when I should have been more aggressive. It cost me in the end. It just a mistake you learn from.”
China dominated in the women's 1,000-meter final. Han Yutong took first with a time of 1:36.465, followed by Tao Jiaying in 1:36.555 and French skater Veronique Pierron, who rallied into third place on the final lap, finishing in 1:36.627 to deny the Chinese a podium sweep.
China also claimed victories in both the men's and women's 500-meter. The Chinese team captured two out of three podium spots in each race.
Fan Kexin finished in 43.996 to win the women's race, which she also won last year in world-record-setting time. Canadian skater Valerie Maltais took second with a time of 44.061. Han finished in 44.069 for third.
China took the top two spots in the men’s 500, with Wu Dajing winning in 41.418. Shi Jingnan finished in 41.543 for silver and Cournoyer won his second medal of the night in 41.618.