From Apolo Anton Ohno, to J.R. Celski and Aaron Tran, the city of Federal Way has produced short track speedskaters in the past five Winter Olympics.
FEDERAL WAY — At home in Federal Way, a young boy sits in front of a glowing television set, enraptured by the sight of lithe, graceful short-track speedskaters gliding effortlessly around the oval at the Winter Olympics.
“That’s what I want to do,” the kid thinks to himself. “Why can’t that be me?”
In 1994, that kid watching the Winter Olympics on TV was 12-year-old Apolo Anton Ohno, a Federal Way native who would go on to become the most decorated American winter Olympian of all time.
In 2002, the kid in front of the TV in Federal Way was J.R. Celski, 12 at the time, watching Ohno win his first two Olympic short-track speedskating medals at the Salt Lake City Olympics and thinking, “I want to do that, too.”
Like Ohno before him, Celski would go on to represent the U.S. in three Olympic Games in short-track speedskating, and inspire at least one more budding Olympian from Federal Way.
In 2006, Aaron Tran was the eager, wide-eyed kid in front of the TV who would begin his short-track speedskating career after watching Ohno’s performance in the 2006 Torino Olympics.
But it was Celski whom Tran idolized growing up, in part because the two went to the same middle school – Illahee – and high school – Beamer – in Federal Way.
Twelve years after Tran’s moment of epiphany, his idol is his teammate, and the 21-year-old will make his Olympic debut alongside Celski, 27, next week at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
With Ohno, Celski and Tran, Federal Way has sent American short track speedskaters to the past five Winter Olympics.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a smallish city — population 96,757, per the 2016 census — not located in a state such as Vermont, Colorado or Utah, all of which are known for churning out Winter Olympians.
Located along Federal Highway U.S. 99, the highway the city of Federal Way was named for, is a large, nondescript, gray one-story building fronted by a vast parking lot.
The words “Pattison’s West Skating Center” are mounted on the front of the building in big, blue 1980s font.
This is Federal Way’s incubator of U.S. short-track speedskating talent, and the earliest known tie linking Ohno, Celski and Tran to their Olympic destinies.
“With Pattison’s, it’s a history of success, a history of competition,” says Bob Celski, J.R.’s father who also is a Pattison’s-trained former inline skating national champion. “It’s where a lot of kids get their start.”
But this is not an ice-skating rink – though owner Mike Pattison says he frequently fields calls during the Winter Olympics asking him if it is.
Over the past four decades, Pattison’s West, with its spacious, polished hardwood maple rink and popular weekend night socials, has become a staple in the childhood stories of many Federal Way natives, including Ohno, Celski and Tran.
Along the way, Pattison’s Team Xtreme, the inline speedskating team Mike started and Darin now runs, has become a national powerhouse, producing 41 individual national champions since 2010.
The walls inside Pattison’s West are lined with photos of the numerous national inline speedskating champions that have come out of Pattison’s.
Look closely, and you’ll pick out the grinning faces of Ohno, Celski and Tran from their inline skating days, medals already hanging from their necks. All three began their competitive skating careers racing on Pattison’s Team Xtreme.
But before they raced competitively, they raced for fun, competing against their peers in informal races during public open skate sessions or school parties at Pattison’s West, with a free cup of soda awaiting the victor at the snack bar.
“Every person who speedskates, they all will tell you that they got it from winning the races at (open skate) session. That’s how they all got the itch to go fast,” Darin Pattison says.
Those grassroots races at open skate sessions were instrumental in helping the Pattisons identify young talent for their speed team, and it’s how they earmarked Ohno, Celski and Tran as budding speedskating superstars.
“Our advantage is that we work here and we deal with people who are skating for the first time, and we have our beginner speed class and we encourage them to get speed skates on,” Darin Pattison says.
So here’s Darin Pattison’s theory as to how a town such as Federal Way has managed to produce three Olympic-caliber short track speedskaters.
“Roller skating is popular around here because it’s raining all the time, so people come indoors,” Darin Pattison says. “The facility here is a nice rink, I would say, if you compare it to some nationwide skating rinks. That has always helped build our team because people like being here. And there’s less ice rinks out there, so people tend to start with inline first.”
The fundamentals the future Olympians learned while inline skating set them up well for a smooth transition to the ice. All three switched to ice in middle school when they realized that inline skating was not a sport included in the Olympic Games, but that speedskating on ice opened more opportunities for competition at the highest level.
On this cool, but surprisingly sunny January day, a group of Illahee Middle School eighth graders charge – or strain, depending on the kid – up a steep, 200-meter hill about a block from the school’s campus.
On the backs of their shirts, across their shoulder blades, the kids wear a piece of tape with either “TRAN” or “CELSKI” written on it in bold Sharpie. They’re channeling their inner Olympians as they try to conquer this legendary hill under the watchful eye of their conditioning class teacher, Tom Eilertson.
With a crisp, energetic gait, the silhouette of his sleek biceps rippling under his T-shirt, and a gravelly voice that hints at too many afternoons spent in the weight room exhorting young bodies to push out one … last … rep, Eilertson looks and sounds exactly like the career physical education teacher that he is.
Eilertson has taught P.E. at his alma mater, Illahee Middle School, for 34 years, and he says Celski and Tran stand out as two of the most determined athletes to come through the doors of the Illahee weight room.
He made a similar lasting impression on them, because Celski and Tran talk about that conditioning class to this day.
“That was one of the hardest classes I ever took,’” Celski says. “I remember being pushed to my physical and mental limits, and that contributed to my success later in my life.”
Eilertson says he knew early that Celski, and, six years later, Tran, were special — in part because of how they tackled eighth grade conditioning and that infamous, murderous hill.
“J.R. and Aaron showed their colors when we’d do the hill because they’d go by kids who were twice their size,” Eilertson says. “What was impressive about J.R. is that every workout or run we ever did, he always tried to win. He was never the fastest kid. There were four or five kids up front every time we did a workout, and J.R. would go with them 100 percent, every time. He’d never beat them, but he always tried to beat them.”
Even though Tran was as small as Celski had been – Eilertson estimates about 5 feet 2 and 85 pounds – he had that same try-hard, never-give-up attitude.
Eilertson points to the bench-press exercise from conditioning class as an example of the uncommon grit in both boys. Kids are assigned a weight based on their one-rep max, and challenged to see how many reps they can pump out for three sets.
“Through it, you learn a lot about kids and how mentally tough they are,” Eilertson said. “Some kids bail out at 10, other kids get six more. J.R. and Aaron were the kind of kids who would get six more. When it looked like they were done, there was something in them that kept them going.”
That’s why, when J.R. asserted, matter-of-factly, as an eighth grader, that he would be in the Olympics, Eilertson believed him.
And why, in 2010, when Tran declared in an Illahee yearbook article that he hoped to “make it to the Olympics in 2014 and 2018” in speedskating and to someday meet his idol, Celski, Eilertson also believed him, and helped facilitate that meeting.
The future teammates’ first encounter came after the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, when, Celski, fresh off two bronze medals, returned to Illahee to speak at an assembly.
Afterward, the Illahee P.E. teachers introduced Celski to Tran, then an eighth grader.
It was a seminal moment for Tran, who had just transitioned from inline skates to ice skates and was studying under Celski’s old coach, Chang Ho Lee, of the Puget Sound Speed Skating Club.
“It was awesome,” Tran says. “I looked up to him for a long time and I still do.”
You can’t overstate what moments such as those do for a kid with big dreams, Eilertson says. Celski’s effect on Tran mirrored the effect Ohno had on Celski at the same age.
“Apolo had a huge impact. Apolo was huge for J.R.,” Eilertson says. “When you’re a kid in Federal Way and you see Apolo Ohno win Olympic medals and he’s a kid from Federal Way, too, and he went to Pattison’s, it makes it real. Now it’s an achievable goal. Aaron was the same way. He looked at J.R. and thought, ‘J.R. did it, why can’t I do it too?’ ”
Celski has been here before.
When he made his Olympic debut in Vancouver in 2010, five months after slicing his left thigh open with a skate blade during the 2009 Olympic Trials, Celski was one of two Federal Way natives on the Olympic team: He was the newcomer and Ohno the star.
The young, promising skater with the compelling comeback story waited in the wings as Ohno, the face of U.S. speedskating, got his final turn in the Olympic limelight. Ohno would, in that 2010 Vancouver Olympics, set a record for career medals won by an American winter Olympian – eight.
Upon Ohno’s retirement, Celski stepped into the role of standard bearer for U.S. short-track speedskating. But he hasn’t managed to duplicate Ohno’s sterling track record on the Olympic podium.
Celski won a silver medal in the 5,000-meter relay at the 2014 Sochi Olympics but, hampered by a partially torn hip labrum, finished fourth in the 1,500 meters and sixth in the 500 meters.
Celski had surgery on his labrum after Sochi, and spent the next 18 months rehabbing. He’s healthy now and enters the Pyeongchang Olympics as a three-time Olympic medalist, with his career arc nearing completion.
What was impressive about J.R. is that every workout or run we ever did, he always tried to win. He was never the fastest kid. There were four or five kids up front every time we did a workout, and J.R. would go with them 100 percent, every time.” - Tom Eilertson, Illahee gym teacher
He’s too modest to declare it, but Celski is hunting for that elusive Olympic gold to complete his competitive résumé.
“The two things he lacks are a gold Olympic medal and an overall World Championship, and he can attain both of those in the next two months,” said J.R.’s father, Bob Celski. “I think he keeps it in his mental files, but I don’t think he talks about it.”
At 27, Celski is at the peak of his career, and he qualified for the Pyeongchang Olympics in the 1,000 and 1,500. Known for his endurance and his finesse as a technician, Celski ranks seventh in the world in the 1,500 and 18th in the 1,000, and he will skate in the men’s 5,000 relay as part of a U.S. men’s team that, last November, set a world record in the World Cup with a time of 6:29.052.
“I believe J.R. is one of the very few skaters in the world that has perfected the technique of speed skating,” says Lee, a South Korean immigrant who was the first ice-skating coach to work with Celski. “There is a lot of power in his skating now, so it’s no wonder that he has grown to be one of the best skaters in the world.”
Celski has not decided if he will train for a fourth Olympic Games after Pyeongchang. So he acknowledges this might be his best chance to win an Olympic gold medal.
“A win at the Olympics would be nice,” Celski says. “I’ve trained for that. But it’s very circumstantial. … I’ve had some wins and losses and some injuries and covered a lot of the parameters of what you can do in the sport, good and bad. I’ve learned a lot in the sport that translates to my life. And I’m grateful for all of it.”
THE ROOKIE, AND ROOKIES TO BE
For Celski, speedskating has never been just about the hardware. He also recognizes the value in leaving his mark by helping the next generation of American talent.
This year, like in 2010, there are two Federal Way men on the U.S. men’s short-track speedskating team. This time, Celski is the most experienced, and Team USA’s best chance at a short-track medal. Tran is the unknown, up-and-coming rookie who has accomplished his goal of making an Olympic team.
“He’s training the hardest we’ve ever seen him train,” says Maria Crane, Tran’s mother. “He said, after he made the Olympic team, ‘OK, I have a new goal. To medal.’ ”
That was Celski in 2010. He has embraced his role of leader and mentor, and has taken it upon himself to help Tran and the other rookie Olympians.
“It’s definitely great to have a veteran on the team,” U.S. short-track speedskating coach Anthony Barthell said. “He helps them with training, helping them to know when to attack and when they need to make a move. He helps them with technique, especially with the younger skaters, too.”
Celski and Tran can relate to each other’s stories because there are several parallels in their journeys.
They both started inline skating at Pattison’s, went to Illahee Middle School, switched to ice with the Puget Sound Speed Skating club, then left home as young teenagers to seek better competitive opportunities.
In Celski’s case, he moved to Lakewood, Calif, in 2004 to study under Dutch short-track speedskating coach Wilma Boomstra. Tran headed to Salt Lake City in 2012 while he was still in high school to train with the national team.
Both returned to Federal Way within about a year of their departures, tired and in dire need of a break from skating to recover from burnout. Fortunately, in their own way, they each rekindled their love for the sport and resumed training.
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Tran finished third overall behind Celski and John-Henry Krueger at U.S. Olympic team trials in December and qualified for Pyeongchang in the 500 and 1,500. He also has a shot at making the 5,000 relay team.
Tran considers Celski a friend, and says he’s had to condition himself to look beyond his long-held admiration.
“I have to stop looking up to him and start competing against him because I want to be at that level, too,” Tran says. “I have to look at him as a teammate and as a rival too since we are competing against each other.”
To Celski, Tran is more of a teammate and little brother than a rival.
“Aaron’s a good kid, he works hard, puts in the work, he’s eager to learn and has a good head on his shoulders,” Celski said.
After being around Ohno early in his career, Celski understands what it’s like to go from looking up to somebody to training and competing against them.
“It’s a weird dynamic in the sport. We train as a team but compete individually,” Celski says. “You go into practice with that mind-set: At the end of the day, I have to race these guys, but you need that support around you.”
From Ohno to Celski and now, Tran, Federal Way’s Olympic speedskating tradition continues. Ohno says he’s proud to have played a part in opening Federal Way’s speedskating pipeline.
If you look beyond short-track speedskating, the Pattison’s Olympic pipeline predates Ohno: Tacoma-based long-track speedskater K.C. Boutiette competed in four Olympics from 1994 through 2006 and was one of the first to successfully transition from inline to ice skating.
I have to stop looking up to him and start competing against him because I want to be at that level, too.” - Aaron Tran, on J.R. Celski
Boutiette trained at Pattison’s West after his home rink, the Roller Bowl in Tacoma, ceased operation. For a brief time, Florida-based long-track speedskater Joey Mantia, who will compete in his second consecutive Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, also trained at Pattison’s West.
“I love it,” says Ohno, who will be in Pyeongchang as part of NBC’s Winter Olympics broadcasting team. “I always thought that Seattle had talent for sure. Federal Way is very small. … I’m happy to see we have some hometown pride going there. It wasn’t always like that. That is recent.
“For the longest time, you saw athletes (in speedskating) coming from Saratoga Springs, New York, or Minnesota or Milwaukee and places we’d normally associate Winter Olympic athletes coming from. Not Seattle.”
Ohno, too, echoes Eilertson’s observation: Sometimes, all it takes to push a talented kid with ambitious goals to turn his dreams into reality is the realization that if someone at your rink has made it to the Olympics, “Hey, I can do that, too.”
This, is how pipelines form, and it’s continuing down the line.
When Celski and Tran take the ice next week in Pyeongchang, a new generation of kids will be watching from TVs in Federal Way and dreaming of Olympic glory.
One of them will be Illahee’s Marcus Howard, 14, who recently placed fourth at Long Track Speedskating Junior Nationals, and got his start inline skating at Pattison’s West.
“I want to be in the 2022 Olympics,” Howard says. “I want to make it.”