Going the distance: Eddy Alvarez endured painful knee surgery to chase Olympic speedskating glory

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1 2014 6:15 p.m. MST

That was where he also heard for the first time from a physical therapist that he would not only regain his former abilities, but that he could make that lifelong Olympic dream a reality.

“I didn’t believe her,” he said of the therapist’s assurances. “But I had nothing better to do. So I was willing to go with it.” By July 2012 Alvarez returned to Utah to try and make the short track World Cup team. He returned to the team just as it was falling apart. Some of the athletes accused former head coach Jae Su Chun of emotional and physical abuse, while others adamantly defended him. The controversy cost Chun and his assistant their jobs with U.S. Speedskating, and they started their own club — Salt Lake International — at the behest of the skaters who stood by, believed in, and wanted to skate with Chun.

Alvarez said he was friendly with all of the skaters on both sides of the issue, and many wanted him to choose a side. “I had friends on both sides, so it was really hard,” he said. “Thankfully I was out of the sport, and I had nothing to do with it. ... I went back into the national racing program because the only way I could do it was with support. I couldn’t do it on my own. I had to do what was best for me.”

Chun still coaches half of the short track team, while the other half trains with the national racing program. Alvarez said the chemistry is much better this season than it was last year.

“Last year was tough,” he said. “The team chemistry has changed a lot. There is still tension, but it’s better.”

Another reason for Alvarez to train with the national racing program was that his “brother” J.R. Celski trained in that program.

Talking about baseball, Cuban food or the possibility of Olympic glory gets Alvarez so animated, the energy is palpable. The same is true when he talks about Celski.

“That’s my brother,” he said with so much conviction one starts considering whether they might actually be related. “I have known J.R. since we were 6. ... He’s so quiet; we’re two different people, but we joke with each other. And we compete at everything.”

Alvarez said training with Celski might be the single-best thing he’s done as a speedskater.

“There will always be a friendship there,” he said. “What made a difference was me having the opportunity to chase him around. It’s taken my game to a different level. He’s so good, so good. He just has this incredible feeling on the ice. It’s effortless. He was born to skate. His body structure, his mentality, how he moves on the ice — he was born to skate.”

Alvarez laughs when asked to compare his own style to Celski’s.

“I’m a little different,” he grins. “I’m a go-crazy, put power-into-the-ice-and-hopefully-I-go-fast kind of guy. He just floats on the ice.”

The two trained together this summer and Alvarez said it’s taken his skating to a new level.

“I learned so much from him,” Alvarez said of Celski. “I know if I’m with him, I’m in contention for medals. He definitely has a gold medal skate in him.” He chuckles when he considers how quiet and self-effacing his friend is because Alvarez knows how deeply competitive Celski is about everything.

“In California we’d be going up the sand dunes and he’d see me coming closer and he would just hit the jets,” he laughs. “We’re competitive. Everything we do is a competition.”

The hard work is finally showing up on the ice this winter.

“I’ve blown up this season,” he said. “This is the best I’ve ever skated. I won bronze in the 500 in Shanghai (and two medals in the relay).”

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