U.S. men skaters back on (short) track

Solid World Cup season boosts Olympic hopes

J.R. Celski in the lead as he won the 1,500 meters in the final World Cup meet of the season.  (Vasily Maximov / AFP / Getty Images)

J.R. Celski in the lead as he won the 1,500 meters in the final World Cup meet of the season. (Vasily Maximov / AFP / Getty Images / November 16, 2013)

There has been some good news for the beleaguered U.S. short track speedskating program this season.

While the women still are struggling – and have earned a reduced number of 2014 Olympic entries, with a historic failure to qualify a relay – the men seem to have moved past the mess and divisiveness detailed in a Tribune investigation last winter.

The men’s team gained the maximum number of Olympic spots – three for each individual distance and a relay place – by performing well in the two November World Cup meets designated as Sochi qualifiers.

They also did well in the other two World Cup meets, winning the season title in the relay for the first time in the 16-year history of the World Cup.

That raises hopes for the first U.S. men's Olympic team since 1998 without 8-time medalist Apolo Ohno, who contributed to three of the four men's medals (two individual, one relay) at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The relay achievement is especially significant, since it involved athletes from both the U.S. Speedskating national racing program (NRP) and Salt Lake International (SLI), the “splinter” team created last year and directed by defrocked national team coach Jae Su Chun.

In the four World Cup meets, U.S. relays finished 1, 2, 5, 1. (In five meets last season, they were 8, 3, DQ, 9, 6).  John-Henry Krueger of SLI joined, variously, NRP members J.R. Celski, Chris Creveling, Eddy Alvarez and Jeff Simon on the first three relays this season.

Stephen Gough, who replaced Chun as the national team coach, said in an email he had “no hesitation inserting (Krueger) into the ream for relays despite his relative unfamiliarity with the other (World Cup) team members.

“I wanted to be sure that all the team members acquired experience in the relays this fall so they will all be ready once the (Olympic) team is finalized.  We worked closely with Krueger after each race to give him feedback and help him smooth out some of the rough edges to his relay exchanges, and his skating was a definite asset to the team.”

Last year’s internecine battles pitted skaters who supported Chun against those who brought grievances against both him and a federation leadership ousted in the aftermath of the Tribune stories.  Gough insisted those battles are not ongoing and have not had a lingering effect – at least on the men.

“The athletes have been respectful of each other's right to choose which training program they would like to follow,” Gough said, “and early on this summer, they quickly came to accept the situation and afford each other the professional respect that they all deserve. . . while they are not all best friends, the relationship amongst them has steadily improved.

“For sure, things will be quite tense in the coming (weeks) due to Olympic trials but I believe this SLI/NRP dynamic will only serve to bring out the best in our skaters.”

The men also had solid individual results on the World Cup circuit, where a revised format made medals harder to win.

Celski, the team’s most successful skater last season, started slowly but won individual gold and bronze medals in the final World Cup event.  Krueger won a silver medal, while Jordan Malone (apparently) and Alvarez took bronzes during the season.  Creveling had the best finish (fifth) of his World Cup career.

For Alvarez, it was the first such medal.  For Malone, sidelined by injuries the previous 18 months, it justified the decision to take another Olympic shot, no matter that there still is confusion about whether he was tied for third or finished fourth in the 1,000 meters at Shanghai in late September.

The five-man 2014 Olympic short track team will be selected in Jan. 2-5 trials at the Utah Olympic Oval.  The winner of each distance (500, 1,000, 1,500) makes the team, with second-place finishers also likely to make it.  After that, it could get complicated.

*Long track Olympic skating spots will be allocated after this weekend’s World Cup event in Berlin.  There are 36 total places in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters for women and 40 for men (maximum four per country); 28 in the 3,000 for women and and 5,000 for men; and 16 in the 5,000 for women and 10,000 for men (maximum three per country in all those distance events); and eight (one per country) in the team pursuit.

In the current standings, the U.S. women have the maximum four spots in the 500 and 1,000, three in the 1,500, two in the 3,000, one in the 5,000 and a team pursuit place.  The men have the maximum four in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500, one in both the 5,000 and 10,000 and a team pursuit place.

There are further qualification issues when it comes to picking the U.S. team at the Olympic trials Dec 27-Jan. 1, because teams are limited to 10 men and 10 women.  This becomes a problem only if the same skaters do not do well in multiple events.

CHICAGO

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