Gehring wins again; Creveling takes men's 1,000
A year ago, JR Celski barely could get to the start line at the U. S. short track speedskating championships because of a painfully swollen broken ankle suffered at a World Cup event in Japan.
Now Celski is good as gold, with a national championship to add to his list of accomplishments during this record-setting season.
His wins in the 500, 1,500 and 3,000 along with a fifth-place finish in the 1,000 helped him lock up the national title Saturday. Lana Gehring won the women's title with wins in every event the past two days.
Both earned spots for the U.S. in the final two World Cups of the season and a chance to compete in the world championships in Hungary in March.
Jeff Simon, Travis Jayner, Chris Creveling, Ed Alvarez and Kyle Carr round out the men's World Cup team, while Jessica Smith, Alyson Dudek, Emily Scott, Sarah Chen and Kimberly Derrick complete the women's. Alvarez qualified for his first World Cup team.
"It was hard not to compete (in this event last year), but it was the right thing to do. I honestly couldn't have skated because it was so painful," Celski said of the broken ankle and torn ligaments. "It was so swollen, I'm surprised I could fit it into my boot."
He laced up just so he'd be allowed to compete in the relays at the 2012 worlds - not defend his individual title.
Coming into nationals this year, he still wasn't sure he'd be able to compete after suffering a concussion two weeks ago at a World Cup in Japan. He fell in the semifinals of the 1,500, slid into the boards and had his knee pop straight back at him into his eye socket.
"Same place, same rink, so I was worried about being able to get back in time for this one," Celski said.
"I never really dealt with a head injury before and from what the doctors said, the only thing to really cure a concussion was rest. I trained and rested. Those were the only things I focused on," he said.
Considering the injury he is most remembered for, this one was almost minor.
He had survived a life-threatening high-speed crash at the U.S. trials leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games, needing 60 stitches to close a six-inch wide-by-two-inch-deep gash where a skate impacted his right thigh.
Still, he made sure the concussion symptoms were pretty much gone before he laced up this week.
"I was really relieved to be able to skate," said Celski, who has been a beast on the World Cup circuit and clocked the first-ever sub-40 time in the 500 this fall.
Now, after taking care of business at the Utah Olympic Oval, it's time for a little R&R before training begins in earnest for the stretch run.
He is headed home to Seattle to take in Sunday's Seahawks-San Francisco 49ers game in a battle of NFC West playoff contenders.
"I'm a loyal fan in heart and it's just like ride or die for me," Celski said of the Seahawks. "I'm with them until the end."
He's also excited about the next World Cup, Feb. 1-3 in Sochi, Russia - site of the 2014 Winter Games.
"It's always good to go and test the waters," Celski said. "We went to Vancouver at the end of 2008 and got to skate at the (site) that was going to be the Olympics. So it was really cool just to see that, experience that and know what you're going to get yourself into."
The same might be said for two-time Olympian Guy Thibault, who now takes over as head coach of a team that because of scandal had been as fractured as Celski's ankle.
Some athletes continue to have their own coaches, including Gehring, who is back working with Jae Su Chun at a Salt Lake City rink even though he has been suspended and resigned as U.S. coach.
The arrangement (he technically is volunteering as a coach but is allowed into the stands at Utah Olympic Oval like any other spectator) has worked well for Gehring, who said her performances the previous few months weren't "world worthy."
She's intent on changing that the next three months and going forward to the Sochi Games.
"I broke down more times this season than I have my entire life," Gehring said of the emotions dealing with the controversy and previous poor results. "It was realizing what I had was gone, things I took for granted. It changed me. I'm such a different athlete, a different person in general."