VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- If you think short-track speedskating is the sport that essentially involves going around in circles with a lot of bumps along the way, you're right. On two levels.
Apolo Anton Ohno could tell you all about both of those levels, especially on Saturday night, after he won his sixth Olympic medal to tie long-track forebear BonnieBlair as the most-decorated U.S. Winter Olympian.
Entering the last turn of the 1,500-meter final, Ohno and countryman J.R. Celski could see an expanse of open ice between them and the backs of three Koreans. With Lee Jung-Su, Sung Si-Bak and Lee Ho-Suk poised to finish one-two-three, Blair's solitary status as America's all-time medals leader seemed secure for at least another day.
Then, suddenly, the latter Lee made a move, and his skates gave out from under him. He took out Sung like a bowling ball picking up a spare. As the two tumbled together into the boards, Ohno and Celski swanned in to claim silver and bronze, respectively, marking the first time two American men have shared a short-track podium. "It was crazy, like a blur to me," Celski said. "I have to process it still. I saw one person make a pass, and two people go down ... and at that time I was in third and wound up with a medal."
Added Ohno: "[Lee Ho-Suk] tried a pretty wild pass, tried to pass on the inside, and it didn't work out for him."
It's worth pausing to take stock of that second level of circles.
Tonight three of them were closed:
• Vancouver. It's where Ohno, an alienated kid from a broken home just to the south in Federal Way, Wash., learned to skate. And, Ohno noted last night, "I could be completing my circle, finishing my career here."
• Celski. Another kid from that same Seattle suburb, he was inspired to trade in-line skating for the ice upon watching Ohno bag a gold and a silver at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Ohno eventually took him under his wing. And as Ohno, now 27, readies to skate off into whatever's next for him, he'll pass the mantle of America's short-track standard-bearer to the 19-year-old Celski, whose very appearance in these Olympics is a minor miracle.
In September, during a crash at the U.S. trials, Celski's left skate blade tore a gash into his right thigh that cut down to the bone. He'll whip out his iPhone and show a picture of the wound, taken by his anesthesiologist, to any athlete in the Olympic Village who's interested. "It's been a long five months," he said. As thrilled as he is to be an Olympic medalist, Celski is even more honored to be a prot�g� of Ohno, who hoisted him off the ice of the Pacific Coliseum in celebration: "He's proved that if you dedicate your life to something, you can do anything."
• Silver Medals. Forget his victory on Dancing With the Stars. Set aside the soul patch and bandana, donned by supporters of all genders and ages in last night's crowd. Never mind his role as lodestar for mall rats everywhere. Ohno will always be known as an exemplar of de Coubertin's ideal: the exaltation of taking part.
Consider the inverted symmetry between the silver he won last night in the 1,500 and the 1,000 meters silver he won at his first Olympics, in Salt Lake in 2002. In that '02 final, StevenBradbury of Australia, a self-confessedly mediocre skater, watched four athletes ahead of him wipe out in an epic crash, allowing him to breeze across the line as gold medalist. One of those unfortunate four was Ohno, who literally crawled across the finish for his silver. "That's short track," Ohno famously said after being pushed in to meet the press in a wheelchair.
Long-track speedskating is time-trialing, with skaters out on the ice in pairs, racing not against each other, but with the clock. In short-track, all that matters is outskating that guy at your elbow.
Hence the bumps along the way, and Ohno has always accepted them with equanimity. Sometimes you win; sometimes you tumble into the boards. "Short-track is one of the craziest events, and I was the beneficiary tonight," he said. "For me it's a historical night on so many counts, regardless of gold, silver or bronze.
"From a results standpoint, anything more is just icing on the cake. These Olympics are about so much more than me chasing medals. They're about completing my circle."
Or several, as things are turning out.