Apolo Anton Ohno may be mulling over one final Olympic run, but 23-year-old J.R. Celski is now Team USA’s best bet for an Olympic medal in men's short-track speedskating. He took the bronze in the 5,000-meter relay and 1,500-meter race in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. And last October, he became the first short-track speedskater to break the 40-second barrier in the 500 meters, with a world-record time of 39.973. Celski recently took time to explain the ins and outs of the sport to ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Gigley.
1. The rules can’t really protect you.
There are definitely rules and regulations you have to follow. If someone is trying to pass in the straightaway and there’s contact going into the corner between the passer and defender, that’s a potential impeding rule violation. Basically, there’s no contact allowed on the corners. But it’s a dangerous sport to begin with. We have 17-inch blades strapped to our feet, and it’s such a fast-paced sport that anything can happen when it comes down to it. You just can’t think about it.
2. The worst kind of foe is a desperate one.
You have people who sometimes make moves out of desperation to pass the skater ahead of them, and that’s when they get out of control with their skating and cause crashes. You see it a lot in the 500, our shortest race. It’s basically four laps of going as fast as you can. You’re trying to set up passes with little margin for error. If you’re not patient, there will be trouble.
3. It’s not all about raw speed.
In the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter races it’s just like NASCAR, where drivers draft off each other and try to pick the right moment to take the lead. My strategy differs from race to race. I don’t want to give away my plans. It’s about being unpredictable. Plus, there’s not one strategy that’s guaranteed every time. There are so many different factors, like who your opponents are and how they like to skate. Your strategy has to change to fit the situation.
4. The Koreans dominate because it’s a career choice.
Short-track speedskating is a collegiate sport in South Korea, and they also have pro teams there. If there’s a career path in a sport, like with us in football, it gets more kids involved at an earlier age. I haven’t had a chance to race in South Korea, but I’ve been over there and seen the size of the clubs people skate in. Instead of having a competition of 16 people here in the States to select the national team from, they’re getting up into the 50s and 60s.
5. Despite the commotion during races, it’s not cutthroat.
I think all in all it’s a pretty clean sport in terms of rivalries. I can’t speak for other countries. But in terms of the way we view it, we get along pretty well on and off the ice with everyone else. I don’t think it’s like a WWE match, where you have athletes trying to intimidate each other before the race. It is intense, but not that intense.
6. We skate on water, not ice.
Race organizers lay down water on the track before every heat to smooth out the ruts our skates make in the ice. The water fills those ruts in. Plus, in terms of glide, the water creates less friction than the ice, so we can actually go faster. Technically, our skates aren’t even touching the ice. The blades glide on the water, like we’re hydroplaning.
7. Legends are made in the turns.
Typically, the turns are the markers that set the best in the world apart from everyone else. Going faster is all about creating more pressure on the ice, and the corners are where you can create the most pressure. The better you can handle that pressure and the more pressure you can create, the faster you’ll go. How fast you go on the straightaways matter, too, but the turns have everything to do with the outcome of the race.
8. Doctoring our blades is allowed.
We’re very particular about the rock and bend -- the radius -- of our blades because it can affect the way you’re skating technically and the speed you’re able to achieve. For short track, the blades look pretty flat, but the bottom side, if you look really closely, they’re rounded. The flatter the blade, the more difficult the turns. But the more the blade makes contact with the ice, the more glide you’ll have on the surface. So what you do with your blades depends on how you skate, whether you’re better in the turns or on the straightaways.