That was nothing but pure coach and athlete. This has been a long time coming. Switching from inline, he’s helped me get to where I am today — going to Sochi. It’s been a long, long process and he’s been with me every step of the way, pushing me every step of the way. It’s just been a dream come true finally. —Jessica Smith
KEARNS — It's impossible to become a world-class athlete without enduring some adversity.
But the best competitors take that which threatens to destroy or derail them, and they manage to turn what could be heartbreak into a reason to achieve even more.
Both Jessica Smith and J.R. Celski know something about dealing with adversity. And on Friday night in the first round of the short track Olympic trials they both showed why they were two of the favorites to make the 2014 team.
“It’s a relief off my shoulders. That’s for sure,” Smith said of securing her spot on the U.S. Olympic team with a win and a second-place finish in Friday’s 1,500-meter finals.
Celski joked that he’d been worried as he listened to his parents make plans for traveling to the site of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. “It’s awesome,” he said of locking up the first spot on the men’s team. “My parents kept talking about their plans and how to get visas, and I said, ‘Guys, I’m not even going yet.’ Finally, I’m glad that I’m able to join them over there.”
Smith narrowly missed qualifying for the 2010 team, and then last fall the coach she’d relied on since she converted to short track speedskating after a successful inline skating career was accused of verbal and physical abuse by some of the other national team athletes. An investigation didn’t find abuse on former head coach Jae Su Chun’s part, but he was fired by U.S. Speedskating for not reporting an incident in which a U.S. athlete admitted to tampering with the blade of a Canadian skater.
Smith and about a dozen other national team athletes begged Chun to stay in Salt Lake City and continue coaching them privately. He agreed to do so, forming a club known as Salt Lake International. About half the women skate with SLI and half with the national team.
After Smith secured her spot on the Olympic team, she climbed up on the pads that surround the ice and high-fived Chun, who was beaming with pride.
“That was nothing but pure coach and athlete. This has been a long time coming,” Smith said afterward. “Switching from inline, he’s helped me get to where I am today — going to Sochi. It’s been a long, long process and he’s been with me every step of the way, pushing me every step of the way. It’s just been a dream come true finally.”
Smith felt she skated too conservatively in the second 1,500-meter final, after winning the first race. But she knew she only needed second place to earn a trip to Sochi.
“I’m happy with my skating,” she said. “I didn’t really want to chance anything. ... I played it safe.”
Celski, on the other hand, was dominant every time he took the ice. In the second 1,500-meter final, he was nearly half a lap ahead of the field, something even he didn’t expect.
“I kind of looked back, and was like, ‘What happened?’” he said laughing. “It was cool.”
While Celski finished the day in first place points-wise, Eddy Alvarez was second, followed closely by Chris Creveling, who would have been second overall were it not for a penalty in the last final. Coaches said judges penalized Creveling for touching Alvarez in one of the turns. On the women’s side, Emily Scott is in second place, 100 points behind Smith, and Alyson Dudek is in third place.
Celski is a favorite to win all distances this weekend, but his has not always been an easy path. The Federal Way, Wash., native was involved in a horrific crash at the end of the 2010 Olympic trials, in which the blade of one of his skates slashed his thigh. He said the accident taught him a lot about himself.
“It was a life lesson really,” he said. “That day really taught me a lot about myself. I was down in the dumps lower than I’d ever been before. I had to pull myself up. Thankfully my family was there, and I attribute a lot of my success to God giving me the opportunity to being here today. All of these obstacles are life-learning lessons. And I’m just happy to be here.”
Celski said the turmoil that the team — and the organization — endured last year also taught him to be a tougher competitor.
“It was a very stressful season last year,” he said. I’m happy that it happened last year, not this year, because it was really a mess.”
The trials continue through the weekend at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, with two 500-meter races Saturday and two 1,000-meter races Sunday.
There are two more women’s spots available and four more spots for men.