Four years ago, J.R. Celski had it all figured out. He won two bronze medals in short track speedskating at the Vancouver Games not long after experiencing a near-death accident when he sliced his leg with a skate.
Celski enrolled at California, attended orientation and planned to submerge himself in academics. Then it hit him: He had nothing figured out.
“When I got to school, I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there,” Celski said.
So instead, Celski returned home to Federal Way and started following many of the acts in Seattle’s budding hip-hop scene, including Macklemore — who took home four Grammy Awards recently.
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It didn’t take long for Celski and some friends to transform from fanboys into documentarians who chronicled Macklemore just before the rapper went global.
The Olympian and music star have become friends through the production of “The Otherside,” an hourlong movie that made its debut in May at the Seattle International Film Festival.
As co-producer, Celski had a primary role in the three-year project that also spotlights local acts such as Grynch, Massive Monkees and The Physics. The man expected to lead the short track team in Sochi, Russia, also founded the film company M.A.D. Northwest to help promote music, art and dance in Seattle and environs.
The artists say it’s no surprise sports and art intersect in Seattle.
“There’s something special about Seattle at this point and time,” said native John Overlie, aka Grynch.
In an attempt to take advantage of Celski’s impending Olympic fame, filmmakers have released the movie online. It can be viewed at http://theothersidenw.com.
The idea for the project was hatched because the messages of Macklemore and other Seattle rappers inspired Celski as he battled back from his leg injury in 2009.
Before the accident, Celski was considered the next American to follow in the skatesteps of Apolo Ohno. But it wasn’t clear he could skate again after crashing into a wall and slicing his left thigh five months before Vancouver. The cut was six inches wide, two inches deep and required 60-plus stitches to close.
“A lot of the lyrics, especially Macklemore’s, made me question who I was and how I looked at things,” Celski, 23, has said. “I felt like everybody should hear what these artists had to say.”
At first, the Monterey, Calif., native tried to organize a benefit concert for Seattle Children’s Hospital in summer 2010. He contacted Macklemore and other favorite artists through Twitter. Their schedules didn’t mesh, but some of the groups performed separately for patients. The encounters led to budding friendships.
Celski and his friends started videoing the artists’ performances and candid backstage moments.
“Part of it was just luck that we were there to capture it,” said fellow producer Vinny Dom, who attended middle school with Celski. “At first, we had no idea what we were getting into.”
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis first exploded nationally with the hit “Thrift Shop.” Then came the gay rights anthem, “Same Love.”
“You see clips from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis touring around the country in smaller venues with a couple hundred people,” The Physics’ Gathigi Gishuru said. “Comparing that to where they are now, it’s kind of wild.”
Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, told NBC Sports that Celski “was the first athlete, or anybody really famous at all, to really acknowledge me.”
The film’s name comes from Macklemore’s 2010 song, “Otherside,” about drug addiction. While Macklemore’s star power has cast the spotlight on the documentary, the filmmakers tell diverse stories about Northwest artists.
Some of them knew Celski’s name before he contacted them. After all, Ohno put Seattle on the short track speedskating map when Celski was a kid at the same Federal Way rink.
Celski returned to training in 2011 as the film went into post production. At first, he had to force himself back from the much-needed hiatus.
“It’s a hard lifestyle, not knowing where it will take you,” he said. “I was really talented, but didn’t know how to set my training program.”
He returned a matured athlete. But before the year ended, Celski also suffered another frustrating injury. This time, he broke an ankle during a three-skater crash at a World Cup event in Japan. Celski had to skip the 2012 World Championships.
He also has suffered from two concussions since his return. But Celski is healthy heading to Sochi, underscored by his sweep of three events at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month. If all goes well, he could add to his medal collection.
Seattle’s hip-hop community will be on the sideline hoping it happens.