Two-time Olympian J.R. Celski remembers the blur of the finish line in a frenetic race no one expected, but he wasn’t sure of the result.
The U.S. men’s short track speedskating 5,000-meter relay team made its first A final of the season at the Shanghai world cup earlier this month, and the pace went blistering from the get-go, ending equally as frenzied.
“I made a pass on the South Korean with about a half lap to go and had the jab (at the finish line),” Celski recalled. “In a jab like that where I shoot for the line, I look over and glance to see if I win, but I had no idea this time, I was so stretched out.”
Going for their first win of the season, the relay team of Keith Carroll Jr., Thomas Hong and John-Henry Krueger surrounded Celski in apparent triumph, assuring him he had won.
Then came the delay.
“But the referees kept us waiting a good 5-10 minutes before the winner was called,” Celski said. “We all knew we medaled, we just didn’t know what color. And then the names came up on the board. And world record was next to it! We just freak out.”
After not making the A final in the first two world cups of the season, Team USA regrouped and shattered the word record by almost two seconds, posting a 6:29.052 with South Korea ridiculously close behind at 6:29.076.
Both times beat the previous world record of 6:30.958 set by Canada on Oct. 19, 2012, in Calgary, Alberta, and obliterated the previous American record of 6:33.363 set by Adam Callister, Carroll, Hong and Krueger on Nov. 4, 2016, also in Calgary.
“This was our first medal of the season, our first A final,” Celski said while preparing for the final world cup of the season in Seoul, South Korea. It is also Team USA’s first gold medal in the relay since November 2013.
“It’s really hard to say we expected to win,” said Hong, 20. “In the sport of short track, there’s so much going on, so much can happen in 45 laps, there can be a lot of spills and crashes in that time. As a team, we have confidence in our ability. As a team, I can honestly say we expected to podium, but a world record, no.”
Celski, 27, who has won a pair of Olympic medals in the relay — silver in 2014 and bronze in 2010 — knows what Hong’s talking about. In Sochi, teammate Chris Creveling had to leap three crashed teams to turn it into a one-on-one race against Russia.
This time out, circumstances were much different. And no one had any inkling going in that a world record would be on the table.
“World records usually don’t happen unless you’re trying for them, especially in the relay,” Celski said. “Conditions on the ice have to be good, and the pace has to be fast from the start. I actually saw the previous world record happen in Calgary, and their intentions were to break the world record.
“No records were previously broken on the rink in Shanghai, so it was surprising to see the South Koreans set that pace.”
Setting the world record took a total team effort from the Americans.
The South Koreans went hard from the gun out of Lane 1 and did their first exchange after a half lap, which is highly unusual. Team USA, skating out of Lane 4, saw what happened and didn’t want to get gapped.
“From that moment, I knew they were trying to gap the field,” Celski said. “They had a 20-meter gap on the field and everybody caught on fast. We high-tailed it and tried to chase them down with the Canadians and China.”
The field caught the leaders by the fourth exchange, but Canada and China fell in a collision and the Koreans pushed the pace again. Team USA followed exchange after exchange. And then with two laps to go, Celski took the anchor in second place for the Americans and chased down the leader for the victory.
“To get the world record as a whole team makes this victory a little sweeter,” Krueger said.
“We’ve been working really hard and this is a long time coming,” Carroll said. “To pull it all together and have something go right feels awesome.”
But Celski said the world record wasn’t the best part – it was the affect the result had on the Olympic quota spot standings for the U.S.
“I was actually happier we were able to put to it all together, win the race and pretty much secure qualifying five guys for the Olympics,” Celski said. “The world record is something a little extra special that went along with it.”
The same four men won bronze the following weekend in Seoul, South Korea. It marked the first time the U.S. won consecutive relay medals since the 2013-14 season, setting them up for potential Olympic success.