John-Henry Krueger celebrates after winning his semifinal heat of the men's 1000-meter race at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on February 17, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Just after John-Henry Krueger glided across the finish line to earn a silver medal, he skated to the opposite side of the ice and leaned on the barrier separating the rink from the rest of the world.
He hugged his coaches and then collapsed to the ice, leaving his head on the cold surface for a close to a minute. Krueger finally stood and embraced his coaches again. He took an American flag to carry around the rink.
In that moment, he thought about all the choices he’s had to make in his speedskating career. The path to his 1,000-meter short track silver medal in PyeongChang – Team USA’s first individual speedskating medal, short track or long track, in eight years – has had many stops around the world, each marking a personal decision to train somewhere new.
“My mindset was, going into the Games I would rather make a huge change and fail completely than stay in the same place and not improve at all,” Krueger said.
In the year before these Olympic Winter Games, Krueger relocated to the Netherlands where he said he thought he could receive more individualized training. It worked. The first-time Olympian will leave South Korea with at least one medal.
Before moving to the Netherlands, most of Krueger’s career had been spent with Korean coaches. Growing up in Pittsburgh, his family drove four hours to Washington D.C. a couple times a week so he and his brother could practice under Koreans. Sometimes, they would spend the nights in a cabin or tent at a nearby campground.
Even when he moved out to Salt Lake City, his training had some Korean influence. And then he dove all the way in, settling in South Korea for the sake of his speedskating career.
“Washington D.C. was like Korea lite,” Krueger said. “And then Korea was the real deal.”
In South Korea, the site of these 2018 Games, short track speedskating reigns supreme. At the Sochi Games, South Korean athletes won five medals in the short track events, two of which were gold. In Vancouver, they won eight medals, the most of any country.
But the Koreans’ passion, energy and investment into this Olympic sport is perhaps most clear inside the Gangneung Ice Arena this month. Not long before Krueger and the four other skaters in the final came onto the ice, the crowd erupted with ear-splitting cheers after Korea’s Minjeong Choi won a gold medal in the women’s 1,500.
A similar outburst could have been expected if one of the two Koreans skating with Krueger had crossed first, but both ultimately slid into the wall as part of a three-man collision toward the end of the race. At that point, Krueger’s night was almost guaranteed to end with a gold or silver medal.
“That's definitely not a bad thought to have the last lap, knowing that I had second,” Krueger said. “I just wanted to make sure I stayed on my feet obviously. There were so many thoughts rushing through my head in that moment.”
Krueger finished the race about seven seconds before Korea’s Yira Seo, the bronze medalist who gave the home country its third short track medal in four events. Krueger and Canada’s Samuel Girard, the gold medalist, stayed toward the front of the pack through the race, and they benefited.
“Even though it's physically harder to lead up front, there's just too much traffic and too much stuff that can go down if you stay in the back,” Krueger said.
On Saturday, Krueger advanced to the semifinals due to another skater’s penalty, flipping the script from earlier in the Games when he was penalized and knocked out of the 1,500 semifinal.
Krueger’s second-place finish marks the first medal for U.S. speedskaters at these Games. And even though this is an individual sport, earning medals leads to joint pride.
“When one wins,” U.S. teammate Jessica Kooreman said, “we all feel like we win.”
With Krueger’s medal, he proved not just to others but to himself that all his stops have led him to the right place. He’s in PyeongChang celebrating with the U.S. flag, stepping onto the medal stand and fully experiencing that it-was-worth-it feeling.
“Besides getting the Olympic medal, I think the second greatest thing is knowing all the decisions I made leading up to these Games were right,” Krueger said. “There was lots of moving, lots of hard decisions to make, but I'm on the podium.”
Emily Giambalvo is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.