J.R. Celski is beaming, talking and joshing with a group of kids at an "Olympic Day in LA" event.
Bright blue sky, high 80s, palm trees waving in a gentle Southland breeze. Not exactly the setting where you would expect to find a winter-sports superstar. But here he is, the pride of Federal Way, the short-track speed-skater working towards his second Winter Olympics. We caught up with him as he took a few hours (after a four-hour morning workout) to share his experiences and his devotion to health and training with about 100 local kids.
He says the kids give him energy.
"Every time I'm around them, it's awesome," he laughs, flashing that easy grin. "It makes me wish I was young again!”
Young again. He's 22.
But it is clear that the teenage Celski who made it to the Vancouver Olympics against all expectations and all odds is gone. He’s replaced by a more thoughtful and experienced young man.
He was just 19 during the last Olympic cycle. It wasn't exactly an easy ride. In a race six months before the Games, J.R. sliced his leg to the bone -- his razor-sharp skate cutting deep and putting his career and, in fact, his life in jeopardy. He could have bled out right there on the ice. He didn't. He recovered to skate again and won two bronze medals against the best skaters in the world. It was a medical miracle and a tribute to his courage and his commitment to his sport and his dreams.
This time, he's in good health and expects to stay that way.
"I've never pushed this hard,” he said. He trains in Lakewood, Calif., with longtime coach Wilma Boomstra.
With Apolo Ohno now moving on from his competitive short-track career, this is Celski's time to shine. This USA short-track team is his to lead and he seems completely at ease with that challenge.