PARK CITY, Utah – The competition during the 2017-18 ISU Short Track Speedskating World Cup will have an extra edge this season with country quota spots at the Olympic Winter Games on the line.
The road to PyeongChang for Team USA’s short track hopefuls begins Thursday in Budapest, Hungary, with the first of four world cup events of the season. At most, the U.S. can send 10 short track skaters — five men and five women — to the Games.
One athlete hoping to build on a strong finish to the previous world cup season is John-Henry Krueger, who won a bronze medal at Salt Lake City’s 2016 world cup stop. That medal in the 1,500-meter snapped a two-year medal drought for the U.S., its longest drought in world cup history.
“(My goal is to) be in some kind of high-intensity, high-pressure races, but then to remain calm in those,” said Krueger, 22. “Because at the Olympics, every race, there’s going to be all sorts of skaters and situations.”
Last year was also a step in the right direction for J.R. Celski, Team USA’s most decorated current athlete in short track.
A two-time Olympian, the 27-year-old added an Olympic relay silver medal in Sochi to his two bronze medals from Vancouver. But following a torn hip labrum in the 2014-15 world cup campaign, Celski tore his MCL at last year’s national championships in January.
However, he came back to win a bronze medal at the February world cup in Dresden, Germany, marking his first world cup medal in over three years.
“Injuries are definitely a part of the sport,” Celski said. “I’m definitely not the only one that goes through it, but I’ve definitely had a tough couple seasons in that I’ve been injured a couple times kind of mid-year, so it’s been hard to prepare for a season, get ready for it, be ready going into this season and then have something happen, kind of have to start from the base. But at the same time, it’s allowed me to kind of work on that base and where I need to kind of work out the kinks.
“So I’m healthy now, and I’m looking forward to going into this season and competing at 100 percent.”
Jessica Kooreman, a 2014 Olympian who will be 34 in October, has high hopes both for herself and for the women’s relay team this season, which did not qualify for the 2014 Olympics but hopes to change that this time around.
“We have a really good opportunity on the girls’ side just to see where we stand,” Kooreman said. “We’re looking forward to racing in the team event, the relay. I think for us as a whole, we’re just excited to be able to see where we are at the start of the year, get a feel, qualify our Olympic spots, and keep truckin’ along and look for a good rest of the year leading up to the Games.”
Another Team USA athlete to watch this season is Lana Gehring, a bronze medalist at Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010. Gehring is returning to the short track after a couple seasons trying her hand at long track. She qualified for the world cup team in August.
Although the looming Olympics add some pressure to the athletes, Celski said he and his teammates won’t prepare for the season any differently.
“World cups are a little different in that they’re all qualifying events this time around,” Celski said. “So every country’s going to be bringing their A game to these (events), obviously, because they want to qualify spots for the Olympics. So the approach is not much different for us (more) than any other season, but it’s just a little more important because we have to qualify in the top 32 in each distance and everybody knows that coming here.
“There’s a lot more countries that are going to be competing at these world cups, and that means a lot more rounds, so there’ll be more racing and more opportunity.”
After an agonizingly close fourth-place finish in the women’s 1,000-meter in Sochi, Kooreman said she is eager to get back on the ice at the world cup.
“Obviously I’d love to come home with a medal,” she said, “Gold preferably, (but otherwise I want to be) just skating to the best of my ability, seeing what I’m capable of, being in A finals, and helping the girls relay team qualify an Olympic spot in the relay, considering in Sochi we came up short.
“So it’s kind of something that I would really like to be a part of, is getting a girls team to the Games.”
Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.