KEARNS, Utah – One was aiming for his third Olympic team and the other for his first, but that didn’t make J.R. Celski and Aaron Tran’s hunger at the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Short Track Speedskating any different.
Both men did exactly what they needed to do and qualified to compete at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang with top results at the Utah Olympic Oval.
Celski qualified with his second-place finish in Friday’s 1,500-meter (though it did not become official until Saturday), while Tran surprised the field to win Saturday’s 500-meter classification.
And it was only fitting that the two punched their tickets to South Korea on the same day. Though they’re six years apart in age, Celski and Tran both grew up in Federal Way, Washington – a city of less than 100,000. In fact, they even attended the same middle school and high school.
“It’s amazing; he’s a great role model, great leader, and I’ve always been thankful that I’ve been able to skate with him,” Tran said of making the Olympic team with his role model. “He’s just a great guy, great skater.”
Tran had heard the name ‘J.R. Celski’ repeatedly growing up – whether it was from his physical education teachers or at his inline skating rink, which was the same one where Celski had trained.
It was not until Celski was speaking at an assembly at their middle school that Tran finally met the decorated speedskater. And it wasn’t too long after that they were on the world cup team together – and now, the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team.
“We both went to the same middle school, went to the same high school and now we’re going to the Olympics together, so it means a lot,” Celski said. “I’m so happy for him, his family and everyone that supports him.”
Celski has been the face of short track speedskating in the United States since Apolo Ohno, the most decorated U.S. winter Olympian ever with eight medals, retired in 2010. And it’s a role he’ll keep for the foreseeable future as he competes at his third Olympics in less than two months.
“I’m ecstatic. A lot of up-and-down emotions. I really couldn’t get it together after the first fall today, but I turned it around and I told myself I have to come out and skate and do what I can, so I made it happen,” said Celski, who had fallen in his first race of the day, a quarterfinal.
The 27-year-old won Friday’s first of two 1,500 finals, but was sixth the next go-round. Still, his results gave him the runner-up spot when the points were added together.
The U.S. qualified five men for its 2018 short track speedskating team, and it was likely that the winner and runner-up at each distance would go to Korea, but Celski would have to wait to see if his finish was good enough, in case six different men finished first and second across the three distances.
Once John-Henry Krueger, Friday’s 1,500 overall winner, won the 500 as well on Saturday, Celski knew he was in.
By making the team, Celski guaranteed the 2018 Olympic men’s short track team will be one with Olympic experience, as he was the only Olympian in the 16-man field.
He earned bronze in the 1,500 at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 in his Olympic debut, and just last month he won his only individual world cup medal of the season, also a 1,500-meter bronze.
He still holds the 500-meter world record he set in 2012 and was favored to win Saturday’s final as well. At that distance, he placed 10th in the first final. In the second round, Celski won both his quarterfinal and semifinal en route to a second-place finish in the final, behind John-Henry Krueger.
Celski also earned 2010 Olympic bronze and 2014 Olympic silver in the 5,000-meter relay and his chances are looking good to win a third straight Olympic relay medal in PyeongChang, South Korea, in two months. He joined Keith Carroll Jr., Thomas Hong and Krueger in setting a relay world record in Shanghai for the world cup gold. They followed that up with bronze the following week in Seoul, South Korea.
“I’m turning the corner. My third Olympics – it sounds amazing to me,” Celski said. “I’m really excited to be part of Team USA and go represent in Korea.”
He also has nine world championship medals on his resume, six of which are individual.
Tran on the other hand, was the surprise runner-up of the 500-meter overall distance classification, finishing behind Krueger in the point tally.
After placing second at one of two 500-meter races and third in one of two 1,000s at this fall’s short track world cup qualifier, Tran kept himself relevant but was an outside shot for the Olympic team. After all, he was not one of the four American men to set the relay world record last month.
He took advantage of a clean slate at Olympic trials, finishing second in both his quarterfinal and semifinal in the first round of competition, doing exactly what he needed to reach the final. In the final, he kept himself in the mix as best he could, but was able to make his move once John-Henry Krueger and Thomas Hong made contact (and Hong was penalized). Tran sailed into the lead and won that final, earning himself valuable points toward Olympic qualification.
Tran’s success continued the second round, where he won his quarterfinal and finished second to Celski in his semi. In the final, Tran finished fourth, but he had earned enough points to finish second overall in the 500 and lock up his spot at the Olympics.
The 21-year-old, who started skating after seeing short track on TV during the 2006 Olympics, will make his Olympic debut in PyeongChang, where he will compete in the 500-meter and likely the 5,000-meter relay. He’ll know after tomorrow’s 1,000-meter if he will compete in either of the other two distances.
“Just hearing that I punched my ticket to PyeongChang, I don’t have any words for it,” Tran said. “I’ve been training my whole life for this moment, and it’s surreal that I’ve made it. I’ll just soak it all in, this whole experience.”
At the Games, Celski and Tran will look to help Team USA win its fourth straight Olympic medal in the relay.
Tran has twice helped the U.S. to world cup bronze in that event – two seasons ago in Dresden, Germany, and last month in Seoul, South Korea. His career-best individual finish is 19th at a 1,500-meter world cup race.