USA Medalist John-Henry Krueger's Biggest Night Through His Parents' Eyes

By Martin Rogers, USA Today | Feb. 18, 2018, 8:36 p.m. (ET)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Heidi Krueger stepped out of the small studio flat an hour outside Pyeongchang that she and husband Bryan rented in order to watch their son, John-Henry, at the Winter Olympics.

“(Nerves) don’t start to gnaw at me until they get to the line,” she said, after hugging visitors from USA TODAY Sports and offering a warm smile. “Then I am like, run little bunny, run. For now, I am calm.”

Four hours later, she was anything but. John-Henry Krueger produced the skating night of his life at the Gangneung Ice Arena to clinch silver in the 1,000 meters in short-track speedskating for the USA's only medal of Day 8.

As her 22-year-old son crossed the line, Heidi was waving a Pittsburgh Steelers “Terrible Towel” and yelling at the top of her voice. Bryan, who all afternoon admitted to being a nervous wreck, climbed his way over to her and the pair exchanged the kind of hug that spoke to a decade and more of parental love and dedication to a sport that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Beneath them, John-Henry was preparing to make the happiest two steps of his life.

“Oh my God," she gasped, "they’re going to put my son on a podium.” 

“John-Henry is a great kid who deserves everything that comes his way,” Bryan Krueger said, as myself and USA TODAY Sports social media editor Alex Ptachick joined him and his wife in a taxi Saturday afternoon. “It has not been easy, financially and emotionally, but it has been worth every moment to let him chase his dream.”

Saturday night was a dream for the Kruegers, a beautiful, wonderful, magical dream. Two years ago, they sent their son off overseas, first to South Korea and then the Netherlands because they believed it was the best place for him to train and develop. Another son, Cole, moved to Hungary for the same reason.

Bryan gets so worried during races he hadn’t watched John-Henry compete in two years. “Because he gets a lot more stressed out than my mom,” John-Henry said.

For the Olympics, though, he just couldn’t miss it.

The payoff came amid an extraordinary night of racing. Krueger got bumped in his quarterfinal and placed fourth, with the top two due to advance. But he got reinstated and put through to the semis because of the infraction, then led the semifinal for virtually the entire race.

The final was pure drama.

Krueger was unable to get into the lead immediately as he had in other races, but he worked his way around to the front. He was matched there by eventual winner Samuel Girard, who proved ultimately too strong. Behind Krueger a high-speed crash took out the rest of the field and left him needing only to get around another lap and a half for second place.

“It is definitely not a bad thought to have on the last lap, knowing I had second,” John-Henry said. “I just wanted to stay on my feet. There were so many thoughts rushing through my head.”

Every parent should get to experience a night like the Kruegers had here, although, of course, that’s not how it works. And every journalist should have the privilege of seeing the process up close for a brief snapshot in time.

Early in the Olympics I reached an agreement with Heidi Krueger, who has become a good friend, to shadow her and Bryan from their temporary lodging in the city of Yangyang, an hour from the speedskating venue, on the night of the 1000. Not wanting to tempt fate — John-Henry is deeply superstitious — she put the plans on hold until he qualified for the quarterfinals four days earlier.

The Kruegers are comfortable financially, Bryan is a corporate accountant and Heidi a figure skating coach, from the South Hills of Pittsburgh. But speedskating is a prohibitively costly sport with a set of blades running to more than $2,000. The world championships are coming up, John-Henry’s Dutch training will continue, and the cost of hotels near Pyeongchang for 17 days were simply too expensive. A small but comfortable Airbnb did the trick, meaning buses and trains and, this time, a ride with a couple of journalists, are par for the course.

 “When you love your children you will do anything for them,” Heidi said, packing that Steelers towel that she’d later wave and cry into. “He has worked so hard and sacrificed so much. We are not here to sightsee, this is a business trip for JH, and it is for us too.”

On the journey, Ptachick posted a photo of Heidi and Bryan on the USA TODAY Sports Instagram page. John-Henry was relaxed enough to be checking social media in the quiet afternoon hours, and responded.

“Wow, thank you so much for the shout out,” he wrote. “I really appreciate it.”

“Get focused for tonight,” came the response, on orders from Heidi and Bryan. “They send their love.”

Four years ago, just before Olympic trials, John-Henry contracted swine flu and was left retching into a toilet the night before he tried to compete. Here in South Korea, he got a terrible call in the 1,500 while skating brilliantly and was controversially disqualified. The relay was not in good enough form to progress. This night, though, things went right.

The sacrifices for the Kruegers have been great. Camping out to save on hotels as teenager. Sleeping in the car on the way back from four-hour drives to Washington, D.C., for training. In December, the Kruegers packed John-Henry off on a flight to the Netherlands on Christmas Day as the cost was cheaper.

“It brought us together," Bryan said. “It is a challenge but you find a way to make it work.”

The Kruegers made it work alright. All of them, John-Henry on the track, his parents with their support and brother Cole, too, messaging and celebrating from Budapest.

Within an hour of the final John-Henry was doing the rounds of television and media conferences, handling himself with the kind of composure that he showed on the ice.

Heidi and Bryan were on the 10.50 p.m. bus, the first of two they’d take back to their accommodations.

It made for a long night, but oh, what a night.

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