Going the distance: Eddy Alvarez endured painful knee surgery to chase Olympic speedskating glory
Matt Gade, Deseret News
KEARNS — Unable to move from the floor of his parents' Miami home, Eddy Alvarez could no longer see the dreams he’d chased all his life.
“I went from this all-star player in baseball and skating into nothing,” the 24-year-old said. “It was really bad for me. I was ready to quit.”
A college baseball player with Olympic aspirations in short track speedskating, Alvarez was plagued by knee pain. After missing the 2010 Olympic Games, he basically quit skating to focus on baseball. He walked on at Salt Lake Community College in 2011 and became the team’s starting shortstop.
He enjoyed an outstanding season, finishing with a .303 batting average and a .900 fielding percentage.
“I had a blowout season," he said. “It was the best I ever played. They turned me into a switch hitter; I led the conference in doubles, was all-conference.”
And for the first time, the Miami native felt at home in snowy Utah.
“I loved being a Bruin,” he said of SLCC. “It was kind of like being taken in by a family. ... I created relationships I still have with guys.”
But his knee pain persisted.
“It was getting progressively worse,” he said. “I thought going to baseball would give my knees a break. ... I would come home and take my pants off and my knees were swollen like softballs.”
An ultrasound revealed 12 tears between both knees, and he decided to fix both at the same time.
“It was brutal,” he said, the smile that usually lights up his face gone. “I thought I’d made a mistake for sure. It was awful. It was definitely the lowest point in my life.”
Alvarez had the surgery in his hometown of Miami and his mother made him a bed on a mat on the floor of their living room.
“I was bedridden for four weeks,” he said. “I couldn’t move; I couldn’t walk by myself for two months.”
His companion became a guitar, which he became pretty good at playing.
“I thought, ‘This is pointless,'” he said. “I had no motivation, no drive. I wasn’t willing to come back whatsoever. I kept telling my parents that. I kept crying to them.”
Doctors weren’t sure he’d ever skate at an elite level again, and baseball was a maybe. Alvarez said his mother cried with him, cried for him.
But his father refused to follow his son into the dark place he’d gone.
“My dad actually kept the dream alive, in a way,” said Alvareaz as he apologizes for the tears that come when he recalls how his father handled his darkest time. “Without him, I definitely wouldn’t have come back.”
Walter Alvarez simply refused to believe the despair would keep his son from accomplishing what he’d worked for all his life.
“He’s the most stubborn guy I know,” Alvarez said, the smile returning to his face. “I would say, ‘I’m done. I quit. That’s it.’ And he would just say, ‘Let’s wait it out. Let’s see what happens.’”
What happened was that six weeks after the double knee repair, Alvarez went to physical therapy. It was difficult, frustrating and painful. But he was moving.
“I had nothing else to do,” he said. “Therapy was mobility.” And for a young man known as “Eddy the Jet,” mobility was hope.
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).”
Alvarez has spent the last year and a half focused solely on skating because this is it for him. He plans to make the team during Olympic trials, which begin Thursday and run through Sunday at the Utah Olympic Oval. He plans to win medals in Sochi, Russia, and then he plans to return to Salt Lake Community College and his baseball career.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” he said of Olympic trials. “I have this opportunity, and I really want to do this for myself.”
Alvarez said he is 95 percent sure this winter is his last on skates. Olympic athletes sacrifice so much for so long that it’s a difficult life to continue living without results, he said.
Athletes dedicate so much of their time and energy into the sport that it becomes the only place they feel comfortable.
“We invest so much time into this, it’s almost hard to be homesick,” he said. “Honestly, the ice is my home. It’s not a great feeling, but it is what it is. It’s all I really know.”
Even if Alvarez doesn’t win a medal in Sochi, he said speedskating has given him a lot.
“A work ethic,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a lazy guy, and speedskating taught me a work ethic. It helped me take that into baseball. I was doing the extra things, hitting the extra rounds, tossing the extra balls.”
It’s also taught him to “go with the flow” and appreciate the things he does have, rather than pine for what his life may lack.
“I’ve been really lucky,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of support, and without the support none of this would be possible.”
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