Where are they now: J.R. Celski
Olympian J.R. Celski is taking some time off from speedskating, focusing now on making a documentary film about the Seattle hip-hop scene.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The toll he paid for all his success last winter was steep.
Five months and one day before his first scheduled Olympic short-track speedskating race, J.R. Celski almost lost his life.
During a race at the Olympic Trials, he fell awkwardly, crashed into the boards and his right skate blade sliced into his left leg, coming within an inch of his femoral artery. The gaping cut took 60 stitches to close.
A medal favorite, Celski now was facing the most important race of his life, a race against the clock, to repair his leg and prepare for the Vancouver Olympics.
He battled through all the pain and the seemingly endless hours of rehabilitation and not only made the U.S. Olympic team, but won bronze in the 1,500 and 5,000-meter relays.
It was a remarkable achievement and his was one of the best stories of one of the best Winter Games.
But at the end of it, Celski, who turned 20 in July, was spent, emotionally as well as physically.
"I had a rough season last season and I wanted to take some time off," he said Wednesday, sitting in a Belltown coffee shop. "That injury took a lot out of me. I knew I had a big challenge in front of me, with my leg, and I wasn't sure if I was going to get back to the Olympics in time.
"This year I went through a lot of struggles and a lot of good times. It's almost like a dream to me now. I've lived it already, but I can't say I remember every single detail from it. But every little moment that I remember is special to me."
At the end of the season, Celski knew he needed a break from the training, a break from the pressure. He was looking for something entirely different.
"This year was really tough on me mentally," he said, "but accomplishing what I accomplished kind of set the standard for me and let me know that anything I put my mind to, I can accomplish. I've been skating all of my life, but now I wanted to take some time off."
After the Olympics, Celski met Seattle hip-hop artist Macklemore, whose struggle to recover from drug addiction, Celski believed, was similar to his own dramatic battle.
The lyrics from one of Macklemore's songs especially resonated with Celski:
"Make the money. Don't let the money make you. Change the game. Don't let the game change you."
"It's mostly about being yourself," Celski said, "and sticking to your beliefs and what you find true in this world. I think if everybody does that, they'll be happy."
Celski and Macklemore became friends and are collaborating on a documentary about the Seattle hip-hop scene called "The Otherside."
"I related directly with Macklemore because of my injury," Celski said. "No matter what situation you're in there can always be demons inside of your head telling you that you can't do this or you can't do that. If you can overcome those demons, you're going to be better off no matter what the situation is.
"Once I started talking to him and got to know his story I just thought, I might as well do something creative with it and do a documentary on the whole Seattle hip-hop scene."
"The Otherside" is hoping to wrap up production early next year. Celski is one of the film's producers.
"I'm new to the game, but I'm working with people who have a lot of experience," he said.
Celski is a thoughtful young man. He has a healthy curiosity about the world and he cares about life outside the games and The Games. His original plan was to attend Cal-Berkeley after the Olympics, but took a detour after meeting Macklemore.
"I'd always kind of figured I'd take the year after the Olympics off, just to rest my body and my mind, most of all," he said. "I wanted to explore what else was out there for me. And I've definitely found a great path."
He believes making the documentary is as valuable as a year in film school.
"I didn't expect to be doing this, especially at this stage of my life," said Celski, whose company is called MAD (for music, art, dance) Northwest. "But it seemed like the right thing to do at the time and it still does. We have to have other goals besides just our sport. I've really pushed myself this year to get into something else, and this is a new experience."
Celski hasn't abandoned his sport. In fact he is starting to feel the itch again. He probably will return to competition sometime late in the season and he plans to compete in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
"I do miss skating," he said.
He will return to a sport where, he has learned, one split second, one clipped heel, one lost edge, one crash in front of you, can change the course of your history, even your life. He believes short-track racing is a metaphor for life.
"We go through life and at any given moment something bad or something unexpected can happen to you," he said. "It's the same on the ice. You never know at all. All you can do is be the best prepared for it."
You get the idea that J.R. Celski is prepared for the rink and life after the rink.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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