Commentary

'Historic night' for U.S. speedskaters

Updated: February 14, 2010, 12:33 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- For a country so taken by stars and star power that even its president had been characterized by his supporters and opposition as a celebrity, it was only right that the Americans' first medals of these Olympic Games were produced by one of its Hollywood characters, and his eager understudy.

[+] EnlargeApolo Anton Ohno and J.R. Celski
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesApolo Anton Ohno won the silver medal in the 1,500-meter final, tying Bonnie Blair as the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian.

In a spectacular finish to an electrifying evening of short-track speedskating, Apolo Anton Ohno won his sixth career Olympic medal, finishing second in the men's 1,500. J.R. Celski, the 19-year-old who switched from inline skating to speedskating as a pre-teen after watching Ohno win the gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, won bronze.

The gold medal went to South Korean Lee Jung-su, who already ranked tops in the world. Jung-su also set an Olympic record with his gold medal, finishing the 1,500 in 2 minutes, 10.949 seconds. He wasn't the only athlete to make history: Ohno's medal -- his sixth -- tied Bonnie Blair's record and made Ohno the most decorated American male at the Winter Games.

Short-track speedskating is long-track's roller-derby, rock-'em sock-'em cousin. In the final curve before the finish line, the Koreans appeared set to sweep the event, which is fitting, as South Korea entered the Games having won 62 medals in Olympic play, 60 of them in short-track speedskating. The finale was a tough, aggressive contest, with Ohno at least on two occasions slapping away the grabbing hand of a competitor. He made a dash to the lead with about five laps to go, but Jung-su had overtaken him, and the South Koreans held all three spots as the finish neared.

But coming out of the final curve, Sung Si-bak and Lee Ho-suk tangled skates and went tumbling into the wall. Suddenly, out of the dust, Ohno was in second and Celski sailed across the finish line with the bronze.

"I felt a Korean hand on my leg and I just lost a ton of speed," Ohno said of the raucous ending. "But it's the name of the game. Short-track is one of the craziest events. It was a very, very aggressive race from the beginning and with a lap to go I lost a lot of speed, but I skated a very, very hard race, I gave my all and I was awarded the silver medal."

The rich are different, but so are the stars. Stars carry themselves in a way that you remember their every move. Kids copy them, the way they walk, skate, talk. Ohno's style is that of the fox in waiting. He lulls and hangs back in reserve, scanning the field for an opportunity as he did in the fifth heat of the qualifying round. Of the 13 laps, Ohno remained virtually in last place until, with three laps to go, he bounced to the outside and raced to an easy victory.

In the semifinals, he took an opposite tack, slicing to the inside of the track to take second and a place in the medal final. But the tenor of both races was the same: Ohno, deliberate, almost observant, turned urgent in a flash, with a flair, the way stars do.

[+] EnlargeCrash 1,500m
Andrew Mills-The Star-Ledger/US PresswireA last-minute crash paved the way for the American medalists.

They also write their own stories. Ohno is from Seattle, and learned to speed skate in Vancouver. Celski, a kid who suffered a two-inch-deep gash after his right skate sliced into his left leg above the knee in a crash last year, had no thought of stepping onto the podium. He hadn't even raced since September.

But Celski ripped through the qualifier with a demon style all his own. Unlike Ohno, Celski appeared to look for the first daylight in at a curve and dash for the lead. He skated with a slicing, jackknifing fury, unwilling to wait.

And for the first time, two Americans took the podium in the short-track discipline.

"It feels good. I saw so many American faces and Canadian faces and celebrities," Ohno said. "It was the most relaxed I'd been before any competition I'd ever been in, in my life. I learned how to speed skate here and I could potentially be completing my circle finishing my career here in Vancouver. It's an historic night for me."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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