No Ohno, no problem for U.S. speedskaters this weekend
U.S. short track speedskating didn't rebuild in the absence of Apolo Ohno. Rather, it reloaded. The eight-time Olympic medalist Ohno, the winningest U.S. Winter Olympian, hasn't competed since the Vancouver Games. He might not again unless you count November's New York Marathon. No worries for the American short trackers.
They're still expected to produce podium results at this weekend's world championships in Sheffield, England. Rising Olympic medalists Simon Cho and Katherine Reutter top a team that definitely didn't suffer a post-Olympic hangover.
"After Vancouver, the team changed a lot, and this last season we very much focused to develop the young skaters," said U.S. coach Jae Su Chun, largely credited for transforming the U.S. team to more than just the Apolo program. Chun has been in charge since 2007.
Cho is the new leading man, paradoxically. He's 19, the youngest on the team, and has called himself its "baby" and "mascot." Cho's Vancouver medal came in that role in the 5,000-meter relay, a bronze.
He matured this season, bagging his first World Cup race win and capturing the season title in the 500, short track's sprint distance.
"In the beginning of the season I would have been content with snagging a few bronzes, maybe a silver here or there," Cho said. "When I crossed the finish line first, it became addicting."
Added Chun: "He's good enough to be as good as Apolo."
Ohno took notice and called and texted his former pupil with advice.
"He told me to keep my eyes set on the goal, not let the results good or bad deter myself from the real prize that I want," said Cho, whose ultimate aim is simple: one Olympic gold medal.
Chun says Cho is peeling his talent. On a scale of 1 to 10, Cho is at 7.5 of his potential, his coach said. The pace is to peak for the 2014 Olympics and become an all-around threat.
Travis Jayner, ranked third in the world in the 1,000 meters, is improving along with him.
Reutter, the best U.S. woman the last few years, is now on top of the world. She's a two-time Olympic medalist (one silver, one bronze) and, this year, became the first U.S. woman to win the overall World Cup season championship.
Chun, not lacking confidence in his skaters, told the Chicago Tribune Reutter could be "unbeatable" by 2014 when she'll be 25.
Reutter's toughest foe may be injury. She had right hip surgery to fix a labral tear last June, but the left hip has been troublesome this season and may require surgery, too. Back problems flared in the last couple months, perhaps in relation.
Reutter believes the upcoming offseason will heal all and that she'll be fine in the long run. She's careful in training, just to be safe.
"Somebody told me a saying, 'Resting is not the same as quitting,'" Reutter said. "There are days you don't have to finish the workout."
Reutter recently picked up Red Bull as a sponsor, joining Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White. That's huge in speedskating, long one of the U.S.' most successful winter sports yet still cash-strapped. It took a late save from comedian Stephen Colbert (and his fan nation) to keep U.S. Speedskating financially afloat going into the 2010 Olympics.
When the sport fell out of the public eye after the Games, so did its support.
"U.S. speedskating is in somewhat of a financial crisis right now," Reutter said. "We usually are the year after an Olympics."
BMW signed a six-year sponsorship deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee last year and partnered with US Speedskating, too. That helped, but Reutter said team members had to pinch and save to make sure they would be able to travel and compete in the world team championships later this month in Warsaw, Poland.
J.R. Celski wished his teammates luck in Sheffield. He won't be competing.
Celski's skates began collecting dust after last year's world championships. He wanted a break after fighting back from slicing his thigh to the bone at Olympic trials in September 2009 to win a pair of bronze medals in Vancouver. Celski, now 20, had been skating since age 3.
He interned with Washington quarterback Jake Locker for a Seattle councilman last summer and prepared to begin his freshman year at Cal.
Then college was put on hold, too.
"Another opportunity arised, and i took that instead," Celski said. "It propelled me to the career I want to do the rest of my life [after skating]."
Film producing. Celski is an executive producer for a behind-the-scenes documentary on the Seattle hip-hop scene titled, "The Otherside." It's a passion project, said Celski, whose group hopes to release it in the Pacific Northwest by the end of the summer. After that, it's back to skating.
He actually returned to training in February. It hasn't been easy.
"It felt like I had taken a year off," Celski said.
When Celski rejoins the U.S. team, Chun sees Celski and Cho forming an elite one-two punch, a group effort to replace Ohno's singular success over the previous decade.
"I want to prove that I'm a great all-around skater and go out there and get myself a world title or two," said Celski, the 2009 overall world silver medalist. Ohno (2008) and Alan Rattray (1976) are the only U.S. men to win an overall world championship, which adds up finishes from the 500, 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000.
"I can foresee myself going way deeper into my potential."