KEARNS, Utah — The fractured vertebra in Simon Cho's lower back still hasn't fully healed.
Yet despite the pain, he still managed to finish first and second in a pair of time trials Friday at the U.S. Short Track speedskating championships at the Utah Olympic Oval.
"There is no time to rest right now, especially because I have a world championship title to defend," Cho said.
Cho had a breakthrough year last season. After winning Olympic bronze in the 2010 Vancouver Games as part of the men's relay, Cho claimed an individual world title at 500 meters last March.
It motivated him to train harder than he ever trained, and to set the bar even higher.
Then the pain started.
He brushed it off at first, and kept pushing.
Then it reached a point where he couldn't get out of bed.
The Aug. 1 diagnosis was a fracture to his L5 vertebra.
It was the first real injury of his career but serious enough that he gave up his spot on the U.S. World Cup team in the fall, rested and rehabbed.
The competition this weekend will decide who competes for the remainder of the World Cup season, with hopes of finishing at the World Championships in Shanghai in March.
"I don't feel like I'm in top form, but given the experience I have with racing, I feel like it should be enough to carry me," said Cho, 20.
He said the pain was present Friday but manageable as he took first in the four-lap time trial and second in the nine-lap time trial. He has the overall lead heading into Saturday's 1,500 and 500 races. The championship concludes Sunday with the 1,000-meter and 3,000-meter races.
"That guy has more talent in his one finger than most guys have in their entire bodies," said Texas native Jonathan Garcia, who is second overall after the first day. "I'm honestly not surprised he's doing so well. He may not be 100 percent fit, but with his technique and experience, he's pretty special."
Cho isn't the only competitor injured.
J.R. Celski, who won a pair of bronze medals in Vancouver, suffered an ankle injury in Japan and was unable to do anything more than start the time trial, not actually race Friday. He won't be eligible to compete for any individual world titles this year.
There's still a chance Celski will race in the men's relay at Worlds. Otherwise, he plans to compete next season and at the Sochi Olympics.
"Mentally I feel like J.R.'s a very strong person," Cho said. "He remains positive, and I do expect to see him back."
Katherine Reutter, whose gold in the 1,500 in March made her the first U.S. woman since Bonnie Blair in 1986 to win a world title, continues battling a hip injury.
It didn't keep her from winning a pair of gold medals the last time she competed at the Utah Olympic Oval in October for the first World Cup short track event in the fall season. She has six World Cup medals this season so far: three gold, two silver and a bronze.
But she was only fifth overall after Friday, finishing third in the nine-lap time trial and seventh in the four-lap time trial.
Lana Gehring leads the women's overall competition; Jessica Smith is second, Alyson Dudek, third and Emily Scott, fourth.
The top four automatically make the World Cup team.
No one would be surprised to see Cho win it all for the men.
"He is a phenomenally tough athlete and I feel he's actually dealing with his injury better than I am because I get extremely emotional about it ... the not knowing, the fear," Reutter said. "But Simon is able to walk in every day and give the best of what he can and accept that's where (his) body is at."
Cho has overcome adversity before.
Born in South Korea, he emigrated to the U.S. with his parents, who scraped by running a small seafood takeout shop in Maryland before selling everything to move to Salt Lake City so he could train.
Though he was given almost no chance of making the 2010 Olympic team, he qualified after essentially training on his own, and took home a bronze in the 500 relay.
Cho wants to continue setting an example as an immigrant living the American dream.
"In Vancouver, I was 18 years old, young, just happy to be there and I left with a bronze. But I'm going to be 22 at the next Olympic Games," he said. "Now really is where I see the potential for myself and I believe I'm on the right track."
It helps to have another champion like Reutter fighting alongside him.
"We're both in pain. It helps when you've got somebody next to you that has your back, literally," Cho said.
Reutter estimates she's at 75 percent of full strength, only slightly better than three months ago.
Cho estimates he is at 65 percent as he has been able to do about one-fourth the training of his teammates.
But he said his goals haven't changed — with winning gold in Sochi the ultimate.
"I'm just thankful it's happening now and not right before the Olympic Games," Cho said. "This might actually be a blessing in disguise. I think I've learned something from it, so I carry that knowledge when an unfortunate event like this happens."