Who is J.R. Celski?
J.R. Celski is a three-time Olympic medalist making his third Olympic appearance in PyeongChang. The short track skater's full name is John Robert, named after both his father, Robert John, and his uncle, who was called JR as a nickname for Junior.
Speed skating beginnings
Celski received his first pair of roller skates at three years old, and instantly loved skating.
“My earliest memory was at age 3, walking around with my Fisher-Price plastic skates on,” he said. “This brought a lot of joy to me early on. I really enjoyed the feeling on my skates. Creating pressure into either the pavement, wood or ice in order to create speed.”
After competing in inline skating races in his early years, Celski was inspired to switch to short track speed skating at 11 years old after seeing Apolo Ohno at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Both Celski and Ohno grew up in Federal Way, Washington, which Celski said made him think, “You know, I’m from the same place as him…Why can’t I do that too?”
By the time he was 14, Celski was such a promising skater that his family agreed to let him move to Southern California to receive higher quality coaching. He lived with his older brother, Chris, in Long Beach for four years until he relocated to Salt Lake City, home of the national short track team, after graduating high school.
Celski named the 2009 World Short Track Speed Skating Championships as his breakthrough competition. At the last world championships before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Celski won five total medals: two golds in the 3000m and in the 5000m relay with the U.S. men, two bronzes in the 1000m and 1500m, and the overall silver medal.
“I was consistent in my results, winning several medals and placing second overall to a field that was my main competition during the Olympics the next season,” Celski said of the 2009 Worlds. “This gave me a lot of confidence that I was on the right track.”
Then 19 years old, Celski cemented his reputation as U.S. short track’s new star at the Olympic Trials in September 2009. After the first two days of competition, he was leading the points standings and was on track to finish first overall, ahead of Olympian Ohno. But on the final night of Trials, he crashed badly in the 500m semifinals and sliced his left leg with his right skate. The gash, which was seven inches long and two inches deep, required sixty stitches. But with the help of a team of doctors including Eric Heiden, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in speed skater who is now an orthopedic surgeon, Celski recovered quicker than expected and was back on the ice two months later.
“The cut to my leg before the Olympics in 2010 was single handedly the hardest situation I've ever been through, physically and mentally,” Celski said. “It took a whole team of dedicated supporters (doctors, trainers, family, friends, coaches, teammates) to help lift me up off the ground and get me back to competing at a high level again. It took hours and hours in the rehab room, pool, and on the ice as a part of my recovery.”
Just five months after suffering a career and life-threatening injury, Celski made his Olympic debut at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. He claimed two medals, and shared the podium with Ohno both times: Celski won bronze and Ohno silver in the 1500m, and they competed together on the U.S. men's to win bronze in the 5000m relay.
Celski said he felt “a sense of relief” when he stepped onto his first Olympic podium.
"That was in my head, like, I need to give my leg some props for actually working with me. So I pointed down and it's like, 'This is where I came from'â¦ I was just looking down at my leg and feeling absolutely satisfied with the journey that I had gone through to get to that point."
Four years later at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Celski fell short of the podium in his individual events, finishing fourth in the 1500m, sixth in the 500m and 13th in the 1000m. But on the last day of short track competition, Celski led the U.S. men to a silver medal in the relay final. It was the only medal won by the U.S. short track or speed skating team in Sochi.
Shortly after competing in his second Olympics, Celski turned in an exceptional performance at the 2014 World Championships. He won gold in the 3000m (which is not an Olympic event), took silver in the 500m and earned the second overall silver world medal of his career.
Celski has been plagued by a serious of injuries in the years since, and hasn’t turned in medal-winning performances at the last three world championships. In 2014, he had surgery on his right hip to fix a torn labrum, he injured his knee during the 2015-16 season and then strained his back in the fall of 2016.
Celski has held the world record in the 500m race since October 2012, when he finished in 39.937 seconds at the Calgary World Cup. He was the first person ever to go under 40 seconds in the 500m.
“My most memorable race was the 500 meter world record that I set a couple years back,” Celski said. “I was excited because I just wanted to race. It was a final, and I came across the line in first and I won. And it had been a while since I did that, so the feeling was nice. I came around the corner and went to give my coach a high five, and he'll tell you—he’ll say, ‘Man, my hand still hurts from that high five’ because I got him so good. And I hugged my teammates, and the time came up on the board and it happens to have been another world record. So it was cool.”
Underneath his racing suit, Celski has a large and distinctive tattoo on his chest of the Filipino sun and stars surrounding the Polish eagle.
“I got this along with my two brothers to show respect to our ancestry,” he said. His mother is from the Philippines and his father is partly Polish.
"I love the lifestyle. And setting goals and working for yourself to achieve them. Also just what it teaches you about yourself. Your mental fortitude. And there's a lot of things you pick up on over the years, and you can use them to your advantage the longer you're in the sport. So it's fun to have some experience to go off of now." -- J.R. Celski on what keeps him in the sport of short track
Off the ice
Celski has become known for his creative projects outside of the short track oval. After the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he took a season off from short track to help produce a documentary film about the Seattle hip hop scene called “The Otherside.” The film featured rapper Macklemore, and the two became friends.
Celski said that if he weren’t an athlete, he’d probably be doing film production, but his dream job would encompass all his interests.
"I like to cycle a lot. I like coffee. I like music. So maybe if I could combine all those one day then that'd be a cool job to have."
But he admits that having so many different passions has not always been helpful to his athletic career, and he plans to cut down on distractions as he prepares for PyeongChang.
“Growing up, I was always interested in a lot of different things,” he said. “Whether it is music, film, food, I always wanted to try different things and exercise my creative mind. This affected my focus in skating sometimes. I wasn't always completely dedicated to the sport, and found myself a lot of the times wanting to experience something different. I quit a couple times because of this. It wasn't until recent times that I was able to give skating my 100% focus. This was definitely a big obstacle.”
Celski currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with his fiancé, Andrea Du Doc, who formerly competed for Canada’s short track team. He’s a devoted fan of the Seattle Seahawks, says he spends hours a week riding his bike because cycling is “my favorite thing to do besides skate,” and collects beer bottle caps from foreign countries.
“I enjoy drinking beer from around the world, not in volume of course,” he says.