“Choose Your Winter” was a recurring theme for two-time Olympian J.R. Celski last year.
He chose a winter without speedskating, just as he’d done after the previous two Olympic Games.
Celski knew he needed a break after winning a short track relay silver medal at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and placing second overall at the world championships in March.
He also chose a winter under the surgeon’s knife so he could be pain-free again. In November, Celski had surgery on the torn hip labrum which had bothered him since the summer of 2013.
And “Choose Your Winter” was the title of the Nike TV commercial on which Celski worked as a production intern. He moved to Portland for four months to work with renowned advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy.
“I was always interested in filmmaking,” said Celski, who was a co-producer on “The Otherside,” an hour-long documentary featuring rapper Macklemore, in 2013. “I could definitely consider doing something like that after all is said and done with skating.”
But all is not said and done with Celski’s skating.
He chooses this winter to be back on the ice for Team USA. He will compete at the Short Track World Cup Qualifier Oct. 3-4 in Milwaukee at the Pettit National Ice Center with the long-term goal of racing in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games.
“What’s kept me coming back is the fact that I haven’t reached, in my mind, my full potential yet on the ice,” said Celski, 25. “I’m searching for that every single day.”
He took his first post-Olympic season off in 2006, though at age 15 he had been too young to qualify for the Torino Games.
“I was going through more of just ‘life issues,’” Celski said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to skate at that time and took a season off so it kind of cleared my mind. I realized that I found the love again for the sport and that’s what drew me back to it.”
Then in 2009 he suffered a horrific injury while racing the 500-meter at the Olympic Trials. Celski crashed into the wall and his right skate sliced into his left thigh, leaving a six-inch gash. He wasn’t sure he could recover in time, but with the help of doctors including legendary speedskater Eric Heiden, Celski was ready in five months to race at the Vancouver 2010 Games.
He won bronze medals in the 1,500 and the 5,000-meter relay.
Celski took time off again and recharged, but injuries continued to plague him. He broke his ankle in 2012, then in 2013 suffered the labrum tear, an overuse injury that Celski said is common for anyone on skates — from figure skaters to hockey players.
“I don’t think it was anything surprising when it happened; it was just kind of bad timing,” he said. “But it didn’t really hold me back from trying to go out there and do my best.”
Celski allowed that it was “uncomfortable,” but he knew how to deal with pain after the accident in 2009 and put off surgery.
“It was close enough to that Olympic season where I couldn’t really get any work done on it, so I kind of had to suffer through a little bit,” he said. “Then after worlds, I knew that if I wanted to skate again, I was going to have to do something with it.”
After surgery, Celski was on crutches a couple of weeks, then did his rehabilitation at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Celski was there for five months — taking time out to see his beloved Seattle Seahawks play in the Super Bowl, which was “fun and disappointing at the same time” — then went to Salt Lake City, where he was welcomed into the 2015-16 National Training Program.
Getting a 25-year-old body back into shape was not as easy as it had been when he had a 21-year-old body. But road cycling helped bridge the gap.
“I always tell people that physical shape on the ice is a lot different than just general physical shape,” Celski said. “It’s definitely been a little bit of a struggle, but I think I’m where I need to be now.”
Celski competed for the first time in 17 months at the Desert Classic on Aug. 15-16 at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. He won his heats in the 1,000 and 1,500, but did not appear in the semifinals or finals.
Because he was still within a year of his hip surgery, Celski said he wanted to be patient and monitor his progression.
“There’s definitely some cues that told me that I shouldn’t push it as hard as I probably could have, so I played it safe,” Celski said. “For that competition, just going out there and being able to see that I can still go fast and still enjoy it, most importantly, is something that was cool to see.”
He didn’t race a 500, even though he was the first person ever to skate under 40 seconds in the event and holds the world record of 39.937 seconds set in 2012.
“I wasn’t ready yet,” Celski said.
And now? “Definitely not 100 percent, but I should be ready to go.”
The world cup qualifier this week sets the tone for the rest of the season. U.S. speedskaters will have another qualifier in January that will determine the winter world cup teams and the world championships squad.
Celski said that when he got back on the track, he realized he had missed “the focus that I have out there when I’m skating. It’s unlike anything else. I can really get into a groove and into a rhythm out there and understand what I need to do to get better.”
|Chris Creveling, J.R. Celski, Eddy Alvarez and Jordan Malone walk the red carpet during the U.S. Olympic Committee's Best of U.S. Awards at Warner Theatre on April 2, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
Team USA is striving to get back on track after its disheartening performance in Sochi, when the only U.S. speedskating medal was the relay won by Celski and his teammates on the final day of competition.
“It was definitely a rough go-round both on the long and short track side,” said Celski, who won all three individual events at the Olympic Trials, but could finish no better individually than fourth in the 1,500 at the Games.
“I think we had aspirations of really doing well there, and obviously going into the Games you want to be at 100 percent. It was unfortunate that it went that way. It was cool of us to win that medal, because all of us had been teammates for so long. To be able to go out there and share that moment with those guys was really special.”
Celski is embracing his role as a team leader.
“It’s really cool to join the team again and be surrounded by a bunch of young and talented kids that are hungry to go out there and make their mark in the sport,” Celski said. “I think that helps me to be able to push myself, but also in that leadership role to help foster that growth and build relationships with these kids that are going to be the superstars of the next generation.”
Maybe as soon as this winter.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.