By Bob Celski
Since Thursday night was so late, we slept in Friday morning to catch up on needed sleep. After a gingerly morning, we caught the shuttle to the train station at 12:40 p.m. and went to the Olympic Park.
Here are some observations about Russians in general and Russian youth, at least from the perspective of our visit around the Sochi area during the Olympics. Suffice it to say, they are not much different than Americans.
We saw the youth texting on iPhones or Androids, talking on the phone, kidding around, and teenage rough-housing going on. They all dress upscale casual. We really didn’t see many in ratty jeans or baggy clothes. Much more orderly and nice looking.
Toddlers and babies would cry aloud on the train or bus, and moms would try to shush them down. The atmosphere on public transportation was rather quiet and respectful – no one seemed to want to stick out by being loud and intrusive. This made it easy for us as visitors – they just treated us like anyone else.
Just as I write the statement above (while on this train ride to the Olympic Park), I must contradict it because one isolated incident just occurred. We witnessed a scene that could have occurred in any American setting. A sleep deprived looking early twenty-something decked out in his volunteer outfit came on the rather open train with a small boom box; probably going to his volunteer position for the day. He was playing some hip-hop song, very, very loud. Chris told me the artist is called “50 Cent.” For all readers my generation, that is pronounced
“Fitty Cent” as I’m told by my kids who are into hip-hop. I heard some elderly Russians complaining behind me, but the kid was ambivalent to them. The complaining grew louder, but the young man just closed his eyes and was in his own world. Luckily, the train soon stopped at another station, and the train filled up. The young man finally turned his music off when he was totally surrounded by people. A tense situation diffused. This was a completely isolated incident during our entire trip and hopefully not the direction youth are taking in the society. I think not – this seems a very disciplined society that polices itself.
One of the elderly men who boarded the train near us, accompanied by his elderly family, let out a huge, embellished sneeze. It startled everyone. The wife straightened up very surprised, and looked at us. Chris, my ever-comic son, immediately looked at them all and with a big grin, said “Bless You” very loud. The place cracked up. It was just a very funny moment on a boring train ride. I was looking at the sneezer’s wife and we both couldn’t stop laughing for the longest time. Me in English, her in Russian.
This was a tense day. All of the team parents came to the P&G Family Home to sit, talk, get some work done, and generally be nervous together. Sue and I were doubly nervous as J.R. has two events to skate tonight – the 500m individual and the 5000m relay. It is the most exciting night of all for short track during the Olympics because both men’s events are fast and furious, and both are medal rounds.
The short track events up to this day have all been in the afternoon. For some reason, this one is scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m. with a full slate of races. After what seemed an eternity, we finally left the P&G Family Home at 7:30; it was dark. While on the 15 minute walk to the Iceberg Palace, we walked over the colorful “bridge” leading into the opening of the venue plaza. While ascending it, I looked up far ahead and noticed the Olympic Torch in full glory. It was large, fiery and bright. I had a flashback as we were making our way toward the torch.
It took me back to June 2007.
Making a long story short, in June 2007 I was driving a fully filled U-Haul to Long Beach, Calif. with J.R. to bring him back down so he could return to short track after taking a 15-month break. We drove the entire trip through the night and into the early morning before stopping in a rest area south of Sacramento for a short sleep break.
It was very dark on I-5, and the near-full moon had risen straight ahead of us, about halfway up in the sky. The moon was shining bright directly over the interstate. It struck me as a beacon calling J.R. back down to his coach, to where he previously lived for two years with his older brother when he first started on the ice at age 14. The moon stayed directly over the interstate for what seemed almost an hour. It was a strange and attractive, a definite symbol to me that we were doing the right thing sending him back down there. I pointed this out to J.R., who had not fallen asleep yet though it was after midnight. I told him my thoughts on the symbolism, and he agreed this was definitely a symbolic calling. It reinforced his decision to return back to short track, a decision made about six months earlier. We refer to this beacon periodically when we reminisce.
Back to the Olympic Park. Seeing the fiery torch in the distance brought me back to that scene with the moon.
To me, it was symbolic that something good was going to happen tonight. This didn’t relieve my tension though, I was still as nervous as ever.
We made our way into the Iceberg Palace. The place was pretty packed, and already rocking. Before the event, the Russians were loudly chanting “Rush-ee-ah” over and over (similar in cadence to the “U.S.A” chant that has been used over the years). This was definitely a home town crowd and gave a home town advantage.
For those interested, here is some insight into short track. It is one of the most popular sports in the Olympics due to the speed, unpredictability and variety of athlete personalities.
As is normal, the 500m is fast right off the start, and gets faster as the skaters gain speed. Within a lap, the skaters are at an all-out sprint. J.R. had a manageable heat, though he was starting in lane 4 of four lanes. Lane 1 is the best as it makes for the shortest distance to the first corner. Being in lane 4 is tough because it makes for the longest distance to the cornier. While J.R. is a good sprinter who developed a good start over the years, he doesn’t have a great start like some of the skaters. Though he owns the world record in this event, it is not even his best event.
At the starting gun, J.R. ended up in third place at the first corner. Within two laps he passed up into second and had a lock on first place. The better the finish in a race, the better the placement on the line in the next race. It builds on itself. Soon after gaining second place, he inexplicably fell, and was out of the race, a certain continuance of the bad luck he had in the 1000m race. As luck may have it, a skater in the race who finished in the top two qualifying spots interfered with another skater and was penalized out of the race. This means J.R., who crossed the line third, actually took second due to removal of the skater with the penalty. So he qualified for the next round, the semi-finals. Periodically, skaters benefit from the misfortune of others. J.R. was the beneficiary this time.
Since he fell, he had a slow time even though he had qualified. Because of this, and an advancement, he was in fourth position on the line with five skaters in his semi-final. Getting to this level is tough enough, and not to mention in the fourth position. He skated well, but just couldn’t overcome his start position against top sprinters in the world. The top two from the semifinals go to the “A” Final, the medal round. The second two go to the “B” Final, which is where J.R. ended up. No chance for a medal, rather, racing for final positions. In the B final, he took second leaving him with a ranking of 6th
In the end for individual Olympic races, J.R. took 4th at all where he wanted to end up. So this begs the question, with this result, will he continue in short track for the next Olympics. Please don’t ask me that question if we meet around town. That decision, which is totally his, won’t probably be made before a year from now, one I won’t approach him with, and one I’ll have no influence in . He will figure out where he goes from here on his time schedule.
For the men, after the 500m races, the last and marquis event of the entire meet is the men’s 5000m relay final. Typically there are four teams of four men each participating for a total of 16. Defined as “organized chaos,” there really is a systematic process that works quite well as long as the skaters mind it. However, in this particular final, there were five teams which, if they are all of equal ability makes it very difficult to maintain order.
Earlier I explained that the USA was advanced to the A Final because of unintentional interference by the team from South Korea in the semi-final. The five teams participating in the relay are USA, Russia, China, The Netherlands, and Kazakhstan. Both Canada and Korea, the gold and silver medalists in the relay from the 2010 Olympics are in the B Final as neither made it out of the semi-finals for the medal round.
The USA started in Lane 5, but this is not a disadvantage as it is in the 500m race. With 5000m to cover, there is plenty of time to work your way up. The race started, and something I’ve never seen happen before occurred at the end of the very first corner. Somehow, miraculously, both the Chinese and then the Dutch skaters fell without any interference or cause. It was unbelievable. This small event, at the start of the race, took them out of the race for gold and silver right off the bat with strong teams like the USA and Russia out in front. When a team falls, the leading teams exploit the misfortune by skating hard to keep them out of the race. Kazakhstan is an up-and-coming team, and was never even a threat. So, that left the USA and Russia to complete for the gold, and the remaining three teams to compete for bronze. That, of course, assuming the two lead teams can stay on their feet! Which is never remotely guaranteed because the corners gets so chopped up and broken out during relays from so many skaters on it going full speed.
The USA and Russians were favored to compete for gold anyway, but I would never count out China or Holland.
They are quality teams with outstanding skaters. The USA is known for outstanding teamwork, strong skaters, and has J.R. as the anchor. Russia has the same reputation, and has the most decorated skater in the history of short track as its anchor. Viktor Anh is a living legend in the sport, and J.R. loves to compete against him. J.R. always says “To be the best, you have to beat the best.” They have a tremendous mutual respect because they are a lot alike in terms of personality and ability.
During the race, there were a few lead changes, and when the USA took the lead for about 8 – 10 laps toward the end of the race, the Russian crowd quieted down a bit. But during a simultaneous push with eight laps left to go, the strong Russian starter had a great exchange and pushed Anh just ahead of J.R. So the race was on. Not many can stay with An. J.R. is one who can. The anchor skates the last two laps in the race (final 200 meters). The last time they raced in the final world cup of the season in December, J.R. just beat Anh with some miraculous skating. However, this time there was another factor. Early on the final lap, the teams lapped the team from Kazakhstan. When this happens, the lapped skater is supposed to move to an outside track to not interfere with the lead teams. Their skater didn’t do this. Anh, slightly ahead of J.R. was able to squeeze by the lapped skater on the inside right in the corner. J.R. never had an opportunity to get by on the inside because the lane closed even further (more interference). With J.R. having to skate on the outside, the race for gold was over. It was Russia. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the USA won the silver medal.
This is the first silver medal the USA men won since 1998, and only the fourth medal ever won. The USA never won gold in this event which is why it was bittersweet for the team. They were that close to it. But relay teams would give anything to win a silver medal in the Olympics. In perspective, Russia set a new Olympic record in that race. The USA, in second place by a mere split second, also broke the old record with their performance but that statistic is mute since our guys didn’t win the race.
This relay race ended the 2014 Olympics for short track. While he didn’t meet his objectives he set for himself going into the meet, J.R. brings home a silver medal to complement his two medals earned in Vancouver. With three Olympic medals, he is now the second most decorated USA short track Olympic medalist. Not a bad position to be in. But J.R. doesn’t think in those terms; that is a proud dad talking. J.R. still owns the senior men’s 500m world record (one of four distance records) that will stand for a long time, and also holds a world junior record in the 1000m that has stood now for over five years. He has won gold medals at the world senior and junior championships, gold in world cups, and national championships. At age 23, what eludes him is Olympic gold. Leaving Sochi, he is happy to have won a medal, but not at all satisfied.
Here is a bit more perspective of these 2014 Olympics in short track. For the men, there were about 55 men from 19 countries participating in the meet. Of these skaters, exactly 15 of them won one or more medals between the individual and relay events. For the USA to have four skaters in this total is an accomplishment, especially a silver medal. Bear in mind, there are hundreds and hundreds of skaters in the sport around the world who never even qualified for the Olympics, many of whom are quality competitors.
By Bob Celski