SOCHI, Russia — J.R. Celski had put himself in the position he wanted, the one guaranteed to keep him out of trouble and get him the medal he was after in the 1,500 meters Monday afternoon.
Then, Celski of Federal Way allowed stuff to happen that would leave him sprawled against the protective mats at the Iceberg arena after finishing fourth.
Maybe it was just the usual stuff in short-track speedskating, where having a lot of people trying to wedge their way into small spaces on a slippery surface often leads to collisions.
Or maybe, as Celski said, he simply made a tactical mistake by not pushing a relatively slow pace after taking the lead with seven laps to go in the 13½-lap race. But he didn’t want to surge then and wind up with dead legs at the end of the longest of the three individual races on the Olympic program.
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Suddenly he found himself out of the lead that Canada’s Charles Hamelin took with five laps to go and kept the rest of the way to win his third career gold medal but first at this distance. Han Tianyu of China won the silver medal and Victor An of Russia the bronze.
Celski had won bronze in the 1,500 four years ago in Vancouver. Now he had wound up in the worst place of all, fourth, but missing another medal by one spot was not eating at him.
“I came out to win gold,” he said. “Anything below that is tough.”
It didn’t stop Celski from lunging for a medal at the finish. That effort left him .562 seconds out of the bronze and led him to lose his balance.
Celski, 23, had dropped from the lead to fourth when he and Great Britain’s Jack Whelbourne bumped with just over three laps to go. Whelbourne went down, and Celski lost momentum at just the moment the race was getting progressively faster.
“It was hard to recover the speed I lost,” he said. “It’s about timing in short track. If I was in front, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”
This was a strategic race throughout. Hamelin’s time — 2 minutes, 14.985 seconds — was more than four seconds slower than the Olympic record winning time in 2010.
“I got a little unlucky,” Celski said. “But last time I benefitted and won the bronze because of some falls. Sometimes you’re on the good side of it, sometimes the bad.”
The difference this time for Celski is that he is the standard-bearer for the U.S. short track team after the retirement of Seattle native Apolo Anton Ohno.
Celski was, unsurprisingly, the lone finalist of the three U.S. entries in the 1,500. Only one of the three U.S. women in the 500, Emily Scott, moved out of the first round into Thursday’s quarterfinals.
“Of course the spotlight is on me more,” Celski said. “(Having) it gives me some kind of confidence, knowing that I am able to do this.”
Celski has three more events in Sochi. He holds the world record at 500 meters, and the U.S. relay finished first overall in this season’s World Cup standings.
For Hamelin, 29, the gold will help erase the disappointment over his performance at this distance in Vancouver, where he failed to make the final.
“I have put so much work into it,” he said.