Olympics: Speed demon Celski follows familiar path
Seattle Times Olympics reporter
The story, by now, is familiar to millions: A young kid from Federal Way, a natural on inline skates, switches to the ice, moves away from home to train like a fiend, wins short-track speedskating medals at the Winter Olympics.
Except in this version, the central character isn't named Apolo Anton Ohno.
He's J.R. Celski, the next speed demon from Federal Way likely to take the winter-sports world by storm.
Most people have yet to hear of Celski, the youngest of three boys in a Federal Way family who skated inline at the same inline-skate club where Ohno, 23, a double medalist at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics and a medal favorite for the upcoming Games in Turin, Italy, made his first turns.
It won't be long. Celski, eyed by short-track speedskating insiders as the next big thing in the sport, will represent the U.S. in Romania next month at the Junior World Championships. And he very possibly would have joined Ohno and company on the current Turin Olympic team but for one thing: He's too young, by 17 days, to meet the minimum-age standards.
Celski is only 15 — not quite old enough for the Games in Italy, but perhaps exactly the right age to begin gunning the engines toward Vancouver in 2010.
He remembers the exact second he decided to follow Ohno's rather large footsteps toward the Olympics: Watching Ohno, who used to hang out with Celski's older brother, racing to the medal stand on TV, in Salt Lake City.
"It was just intense," Celski says. "I was rooting for him, and he did it. It made me want to do it."
His parents, Sue and Bob, saw the look in their youngest son's eyes and knew he was serious. They told him if he wanted to switch from inline skates to the ice and pursue the dream, they'd help in any way they could.
What they didn't know at the time was that it would mean sending their son, at 14, away from home to train with an accomplished coach, to get the kind of high-level instruction not available around Seattle. Celski hand selected Dutch immigrant Wilma Boomstra, of Long Beach, Calif., to take him to the next level.
His Olympic dream thus became "the family project, because we're all in it together," says his mother, Sue Celski. J.R. was clearly too young to move to California on his own.
His parents, Bob Celski, vice president for a local Jiffy Lube franchise, and Sue, a manager at a Federal Way Safeway, each considered temporarily relocating to accompany their son. But J.R.'s oldest brother, Chris, now 24, stepped up to the plate.
He moved to Long Beach, found a job and an apartment, and took in J.R. Ever since, the youngest Celski has devoted his life to high school and training for short track. The results have been impressive.
Celski, at a series of junior events and in training races, has beaten some of the skaters named last week to the U.S. Olympic team. Whether he would sustain that in a full, world-class competition isn't known.
"It's on my mind every day," he says of the 2010 Olympics. "It's a big goal. I'm working toward it. There have been a lot of points where I've been wanting to quit and go back home. But I'm going to push through it."
That's the kind of focus that sent Ohno to the medal stand, and might put him there again in February. Ohno has skated with Celski on occasion, and will train with him again in Colorado Springs just prior to the Olympics in Italy. He, too, points to Celski as the sport's next potential superstar.
Celski's short career path bears a striking similarity to Ohno's. They began inline skating at the same club, Pattisons West, in Federal Way.
J.R. was only 3 when Bob Celski, who grew up playing ice hockey in Minnesota, put all three of his boys on inline skates. They all took to it quickly — even Dad. Eventually, both J.R. and his father won national titles in their respective age groups.
J.R., a stickler for skating technique and a specialist today in the 1,500 meters, "was never intimidated by skating against anybody," his father recalls.
But his transition to the ice wasn't easy.
As recently as March, 2004, Celski looked like nothing special against his peers. But in the past year, the lights went on. Celski, under the tutelage of Boomstra, who also has coached current Olympians Rusty Smith and Maria Garcia, quickly caught up to his peers, and since has left most of them behind.
Expectations are high for him at the junior world championships Jan. 6-8 — his first true international competition — and for the 2006 senior World Cup.
He credits his family for making it all happen. Celski's parents take turns traveling to California to spend time with their sons, and talk to J.R. nightly when they're at home.
"We miss him terribly," Sue Celski says. "This empty-nest business is not fun. Is it worth it? I guess that seeing him on a podium in 2010, which of course is a total unknown, that'll make it worth it. But right now, we've got to help him fulfill his dream."
J.R. says he occasionally gets homesick, and more than once has considered giving it all up and moving home.
"It's very, very hard to live down here without my parents," he admits. "I have to fend for myself a little. But at the same time ... it's opening my eyes a little bit. I think it's made me a better person."
He's on the ice training six days a week, then home to do homework. There's not much slop time. For most kids, it'd be a recipe for burnout.
But most kids don't have the Olympic fire burning the way J.R. Celski does.
"I sit down a lot of times and think about it," he says. "I really do think about it. I think, if I quit and go back home, then I know I'll see people that I knew, or skated against, in 2010 winning gold medals. And there will be me just sitting at home, going, 'Wow, I could have been there.' "
That very thought keeps him going, day after day, around that ice. As a rising superstar who's already arguably strong enough and fast enough, it's a difficult thing to accept. But for Celski, the final obstacle to a Winter Olympics — getting old enough — will crumble the only way it can. With time.
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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