After coming up empty Tuesday in the 1,000-meter and 5,000-meter relay, J.R. Celski knows his chances of ever earning another individual medal on the world’s largest stage are likely done.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – J.R. Celski shook his head as he skated through the finish line of a 1,000-meter short track preliminary heat in last place Tuesday at the Winter Olympics, knowing his chances of ever earning another individual medal on the world’s largest stage are likely done.
What the 27-year-old Federal Way native didn’t realize was that his hope of adding a team medal would also be finished less than an hour later, after he and the world’s third-ranked U.S. men’s team failed to finish in the top two of a four-team qualifying heat for the men’s 5,000-meter relay.
“I’m disappointed,” Celski said. “To come out here and not be able to compete for a medal is really disappointing.”
A three-time Olympian, Celski is also a three-time medal winner after earning silver in the 5,000-meter relay in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and bronze in both the relay and 1,500-meter individual event in Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games. He was ranked 18th in the world for the 1,000-meter event entering this month’s Olympics and seventh in the world for the 1,500 meters. But he failed to advance past the first round of preliminary heats for either event.
Celski looked in position to qualify Tuesday, racing neck-and-neck with Hungary’s Shaolin Sandor Liu and Latvia’s Roberto Pukitis with less than three laps to go. The four-man qualifying race had been reduced to three skaters after Pavel Sitnikov of Russia – representing a neutral flag – interfered with Liu, creating a crash that also sent Celski sliding into a wall. Sitnikov was disqualified, and the nine-lap race was restarted five minutes later with just Celski, Liu and Pukitis.
But, similar to the 1,000-meter event Feb. 10 in which he also held a lead with two laps to go, Celski quickly fell behind his competition Tuesday and finished last.
The Federal Way native said Tuesday’s crash and resulting switch of one of his skate blades did not affect his performance.
“I gave it my best shot, and I just came up short,” he said.
Tuesday’s U.S. relay team, which set a world-record time of 6:29.052 during a World Cup event Nov. 12, also featured fellow Federal Way native Aaron Tran, Pittsburgh’s John-Henry Krueger and Thomas Hong of Laurel, Md. Tran was the only member of Tuesday’s relay team that was not part of the world-record-setting squad. The U.S. finished with a time of 6:36.837 on Tuesday.
Tran, who qualified for the consolation-style B final in the 1,500-meter event Feb. 10 but placed last, said Tuesday’s relay was “all good.” The team can still “end on a high note,” he added, though it won’t be competing for a medal in the relay’s B final Feb. 22.
“Relays are always such an insane race in short track, you can’t predict anything about it,” Tran said. “Anything could have happened.”
Tran, 21, will also race in a qualifying heat for the 500-meter individual event Feb. 20. If he advances, he would race again Feb. 22 in the 500-meter championship rounds.
Celski likely will compete with the relay team in the B final but will not race in the 500-meter event. He said he hadn’t decided whether he’ll continue skating past this month’s Winter Games or whether he hopes to compete for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
But if next Thursday’s relay is in fact Celski’s last Olympic race, he said he’d be content hanging up the skates after a lengthy speedskating career dating to his childhood.
“I’m really proud of what I’ve done out here, especially with the obstacles I’ve had to overcome,” he said. “I have to digest this and take some time to reflect on the past.”