For 23 year-old J.R Celski, the road to Sochi has been a story of love lost and found. Team USA's pack leader in short track speed skating believes it's his rekindled passion for the sport that will make the difference between his appearance at the 2010 games in Vancouver (where he earned two bronze medals) and his success in Sochi next month.
"I took a year off after Vancouver to reestablish my goals and my mindset," Celski said. "I had to really force myself back on the ice. The love was there but it wasn't nearly as much as it is right now. I think after I started getting back into a routine and traveling internationally and competing and getting results, I've been able to reestablish that love that I have for skating."
It doesn't hurt that this year, Celski, who officially qualified Monday for the 500m, 100m and 1500m races in Sochi, is heading to the games with no traumatic injuries. During the 2010 trails, just five months prior to the Vancouver Games, the promising athlete's Olympic dream was nearly shattered by a bloody crash during the 500m race. Celski's own skate deeply lacerated his left leg, leaving him with a bruised (though fortunately not severed) femoral artery.
"I'm very happy that I'm healthy and able to train and push myself to the levels that I am right now," Celski said, though he admits having a couple flashbacks to the accident during his 500m trial race this week.
With a clean bill of health and four more years of experience, the Braun-sponsored athlete is poised to be the top U.S. speed skating contender in Sochi, especially now that Olympic legend Apolo Ohno (who is also one of Celski's mentors and biggest supporters) is retired.
But the pressure of being on top hasn't rattled the West Coast native's nerves. "I like knowing that I set a high bar and I continue to try to push that bar higher," Celski said. "Now that I've had some experience with (being in the lead), it's not pressure. The only pressure is pressure that I put on myself, and anything else, it really doesn't matter to me."
With the Sochi Olympics less than a month away, Celski has gone with a more relaxed training regiment than he used during the preseason in the summer, allowing America's new short track star to settle down between the qualifying events and the Games themselves. Celski said in the weeks leading up to the Olympics he will be only on the ice about four hours per day, with his focus on technical efficiency rather than intensity training.
And if you're wondering what the known music junkie (He produced "The Other Side," a 50-minute documentary on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, among other acts on the Northwest hip hop scene, debuted in May) listens to on the ice, he is very quick to answer. "One of my favorite groups from Seattle is called The Physics and, they just came out with new album called Digital Wildlife," said Celski, who was raised in Federal Way, Wash. "They're definitely on my playlist and one of my favorites right now."
While Celski may have an ear for music and a talent for filmmaking, his rediscovered passion for his sport appears to have the makings of a long-term relationship. "I wouldn't be surprised if I kept going after these Games," Celski said. "I love to speed skate and I love the personal level of the sport."