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Originally published February 7, 2010 at 12:02 AM | Page modified February 7, 2010 at 1:55 AM

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J.R. Celski poised for return after gruesome injury

After a remarkable comeback from a deep cut in his thigh caused by his own skate, Federal Way's J.R. Celski says he's ready to compete in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Still, he admits a nagging fear still hasn't left.

Special to The Seattle Times

Body crouched, precariously balanced on the edge of his skate blade as his fingertips skimmed the ice, Federal Way's J.R. Celski took his turns around the short-track speedskating oval in Kearns, Utah, last month, looking like he had never left.

Celski's story is a comeback fairy-tale.

U.S. coach Jae Su Chun says Celski is more than 90 percent physically and almost 95 percent in terms of technique. Yet Celski admits a nagging fear hasn't completely left him.

"I can say I'm a little scared of racing," he said, three weeks before the Olympics. "It brings back memories, of course. But it's nothing I can't handle."

His left thigh, the one gashed to the bone by his skate blade from a September crash during Olympic Trials, is tucked under as he leans into each curve. Only a couple of months ago that position was impossible for him. His injured quadriceps wouldn't allow him to bend that far.

Celski said the cut missed his femoral artery by an inch. It took emergency surgery, 60 stitches and months of race-against-time rehabilitation, with advice from speedskating-legend-turned-surgeon Eric Heiden, to repair a wound at least one doctor doubted would heal in time for the Olympics.

On Saturday, Celski is scheduled to race in the 1,500 meters. It will be his first competition since the accident, which caused him to miss all four fall World Cup races.

Celski, 19, will find out exactly how far he has come.

He keeps a cellphone picture of the open wound, snapped by the anesthesiologist before he was wheeled into surgery. He's proud of the angry smile of a scar, six inches long, just above his knee.

"It looks nice. I love it. People keep telling me to put vitamin E on it," he said. "I'm not going to do anything to it. I want to be reminded of what I overcame."

If he wins a medal that day or in any of his other races — Celski is scheduled for the 1,000 and possibly the relay — it will be one of the Games' best comeback stories.

Celski's childhood idol, Apolo Ohno, grew up skating at the same Pattison's West rink in Federal Way as Celski. But that storyline has taken a back seat to this one.

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"I think he looks great," said Ohno. "Will he be competitive? Oh, yeah, I think so. He got lucky, man. No major arteries."

Before the injury, Celski had a breakthrough season. He won world championships last spring in the 3,000 meters and relay, and bronze in the 1,500 and 1,000.

At the trials in September, he beat Ohno in the first 1,500 and was runner-up to Ohno in the second. Ohno won the 1,000 as Celski took bronze.

Getting back into elite form has been more difficult than he imagined. Celski returned to the ice around Thanksgiving. For two weeks, he had to cut workouts short, too fatigued to finish. Celski admitted he was still struggling with mental fatigue and fear in the corners, where jampacked skaters slingshot around curves at 40 mph.

That doesn't surprise teammate and good buddy Jordan Malone, who has sensed Celski's hesitation.

"I am scared every time I go into the corner," Malone said. "When you go into the corner, you stiffen up. You want to loosen up and keep stepping."

The team trains six days per week, most days completing two workouts.

"I was expecting it to be hard, but it's been a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be mentally." Celski said last month. "My legs are fine and my body's fine, it's just hard pushing through these workouts mentally."

Chun said Celski isn't in top shape, but believes he'll be ready for Vancouver.

"Should be good for the Games. End of the Games, should be much better than beginning of the Games," he said. "Every day is very important for him."

This is different from Celski's only other lengthy absence from the ice. In 2006, burned out and hurting from a back injury, he quit and came home to Federal Way from California, his training base since age 14.

For 16 months, he did not skate.

Celski attended Todd Beamer High School and worked for his dad, Bob, doing part-time marketing for a smoothie franchise. He played in a band. J.R. said he needed to be a regular kid. He even joined the school swim team.

In one meet, Celski finished last in the 400-yard freestyle by such a margin that people cheered him to the finish.

But the skating itch returned, and for his senior year, Celski returned to California.

He says now the back-home experience kept him skating longer.

Celski is confident that once he steps to the Olympic start line, it will all come back to him. He doesn't want to be just a comeback story. He wants to be an Olympic medalist.

"I've been racing for my whole life, and I know what I need to do to be able to win," he said.

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