J.R. Celski was just 14 years old when he found himself standing on the ice with his idol, Apolo Anton Ohno, trying to figure out how to beat him in a race.
"I'm not going to lie," said Celski, a short track speedskater who earned a spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team earlier this year. "It was pretty intimidating. To think of trying to beat him, it was daunting. But ultimately, I want to beat everybody. I want to be the best I can be."
That attitude has propelled the 19-year-old from gawking admirer to legitimate competitor — and teammate to the very man who convinced him to enter the sport just five years ago.
"It was watching Apolo Ohno that made me want to do it," he said of making the transition from in-line skating to speedskating.
The youngest of three boys, Celski began in-line skating when he was 3 years old. He and his father both won national titles in the sport. Then he saw Ohno win gold in the 2002 Games, and the course of Celski's life changed.
He took up speedskating and he excelled at it. At 14, he decided to move to California to get the best coaching and moved in with his older brother, Chris.
"That was really hard," he said of leaving home so young. "But I was the one who said I wanted to move. It was tough because I was 14 in Long Beach. I was scared when I first moved. It did make me grow up a little."
His parents, he said, have always been supportive of his dreams — which have always culminated with an Olympic medal.
He was even being referred to as the "next Ohno", a comparison he solidified with five medals at the 2009 World Championships.
He was at the top of his game and on the verge of realizing his dreams when he was involved in a horrible accident.
Short track speedskating can be vicious, as athletes jockey for position, and Celski suffered a 6-inch cut, all the way to the bone, that looked as bad as it felt.
"It was kind of like, 'This is the end of my career,' " he said of his first thoughts. "My leg was split open. I felt, 'This is it.' "
It was, in fact, not as bad as it first appeared. Although he did spend two months in rehab, trying to recover from the injury, he said he's just glad to be skating again.
The U.S. team had to earn its spots at the Olympic Trials last month, and Celski's only contribution could be moral support.
"It was nerve-wracking, but my teammates came through," he said. Celski had earned his spot among the Americans, but each country has to earn its place at the Olympic Games. "Essentially, they had to qualify for me."
Vancouver is the first city in which Celski competed. "It's where I first started competing," he said. "It feels like home up there."
Celski was recently in Salt Lake City speaking to the public at the Sugar House 24 Hour Fitness. He signed autographs and demonstrated workouts while discussing what it's like to be on the verge of realizing his Olympic dream.
"To walk out with my team, with my country, that's going to be the highlight," he said. "Just to represent my country, my family, it will feel great."
e-mail: [email protected]
Birthdate: July 17, 1990
Hometown: Federal Way, Wash.
Family: Youngest of three sons (parents are Bob and Sue Celski)
Accomplishments: Won five medals at the 2009 World Championships
Hobbies: golf, Facebook, snowboarding, playing guitar
Interesting tidbit: An honor student (graduated with 3.71) who plans to attend the University of California, Berkeley, next year.