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February 14, 2010 at 1:13 PM

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Colorado Springs medical staff cheers Celski's bronze

Posted by Meri-Jo Borzilleri

In Colorado Springs, one time zone and 1,000 miles or so away from Vancouver's Olympic short-track speedskating oval, a handful of sport-medicine personnel cheered J.R. Celski's bronze medal in front of their televisions Saturday night.

They were the group that played a major role in getting Celski, 19, back on the ice in time for the Olympics after he slashed his leg to the bone in September.

Jenna Street and Kerry Conway, two members of the five-person team that participated in his intensive physical therapy over two months, watched the race together on TV at Conway's house.

It was the first time Celski had competed since his injury.

Street, a physical therapist at the U.S. Olympic Training Center's sports medicine facility, never sat down for any of Celski's three races -- the preliminary, the semifinal and the final.

"I was jumping up and down, especially when he won," Street said. "I was jumping and giving him my coaching through the TV. Because, you know, he can hear me."

Bill Moreau, head of the clinic, watched in his living room with his wife, Karen. Because of NBC's time delay of the live event, friends and family in earlier time zones were under strict orders not to contact them. That included his mother, Val, in Iowa, who was so excited she almost spilled the beans.

Said Moreau: "I said, 'Mom, don't tell me.' She's 82 years old, but give me a break."

Celski injured his right leg when he crashed during the final race of Olympic trials on Sept. 12 in Marquette, Michigan, five months to the day from the 2010 Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Celski's left skate blade punctured his right thigh, slicing completely through his quadriceps muscle. He had to pull the skate blade from his leg as blood poured onto the ice. It left a 6-inch-wide gash.

He underwent emergency surgery that night. Doctors needed 60 stitches to piece the muscle together and close the skin. Dr. Eric Heiden, the five-time Olympic gold-medal speedskater who's now an orthopedic surgeon in Salt Lake, helped with his care.

Two weeks after surgery, Celski moved to Colorado Springs and made rehabilitating his leg a full-time job, his goal not only returning to the ice but winning an Olympic medal.

When Moreau first saw Celski's wound, his first thought was "No way." No way would he be able to heal and regain the world-class conditioning necessary to contend.
"It was a horrific wound," Moreau said.

For two months -- six hours a day, five days a week, including another two or three on Saturdays -- Celski rehabbed his leg. At first, he couldn't even stand on it.

He was back on the ice in mid-November, back training in Utah after Thanksgiving.

"He rewrote the book when it came to that injury," said Street, who believes Celski's irrepressible attitude played a big role. "Every day...he'd be further along than what we expected."

Still even as late as mid-January, Celski looked drawn and uncertain, his comeback not complete. He had mental wounds to heal. He confessed he was still scared racing at top speed in the corners. But something clicked in the past few weeks. Being healthy helped.

Apolo Ohno, who lived at the training center for about 10 years, knows how important the center was to him, and Celski.

"I'm glad he went out there. That boosted his rehab time," Ohno said. "I'm telling you, when you go to Colorado Springs and you have nothing to do but rehab, it'll accelerate your time by like 1,600 percent. It's insane. Because that's all you do, day in and day out."

Ohno said intensive work done there brings athlete and training staff close.

"I grew up with half the staff of the USOC. I knew everybody by first name. They were like brother and sister to me. They would cry the same tears that I would cry. When you build that connection with people, and they see you go through what we go through every day..."

Yes, Celski caught a break when two Koreans ahead of him and star teammate Ohno wiped out, making them both Olympic medalists -- Ohno for the sixth time, Celski for the first.

But sometimes, you make your own luck.

"We jumped up and couldn't believe it," Moreau said. "When he finally got through, I thought, 'Holy cow, did I actually see that?'"

A few months ago, Celski couldn't walk.

"And here he is, skating to a bronze medal in the Olympic Games," Moreau said. "Wow. What a comeback story."


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