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Celski, Smith are favorites at US short track

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Celski, Smith are favorites at US short track
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J.R. Celski competes in the men's 1,000 meters time trial during the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014, in Kearns, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

KEARNS, Utah (AP) -- Now, it's time to go racing.

J.R. Celski and Jessica Smith swept the timed events on the opening day of the U.S. short track trials at the Utah Olympic Oval, setting themselves up as the skaters to beat over the next three days.

Of course, this is short track.

Nothing is guaranteed.

''It's so different than the rest of the sports,'' Celski said after Thursday's time trials covering nine and four laps around the hockey-sized rink in the middle of the big oval, essentially a race against the clock.

The real action begins Friday, when the sport that resembles roller derby on ice switches to pack-style races over three distances that will determine the five men and three women who'll skate for the U.S. team in Sochi. The 1,500 meters kicks things off.

''I love short track because of the racing aspect,'' Celski said. ''It will be fun to get back in there and race with these guys. It makes for a very exciting weekend, for sure.''

The Americans are trying to come together after a series of scandals and a split in the national team. Even on the first day of the trials, there were reminders of the discontent - Smith still works with former head coach Jae Su Chun, who was accused by other national team members of physical, emotional and verbal abuse.

Chun denied the allegations but agreed to resign from U.S. Speedskating and accept a suspension through the Sochi Games. Even so, he still works with Smith, watching from the stands because he is not allowed to be in the coaching box.

''I've been dealing with this for the last almost two years now,'' Smith said. ''So I'm used to it.''

After the retirement of Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history, Celski looks like the best medal hopeful heading into the Sochi Games. He won a pair of bronzes in Vancouver four years ago.

''If he skates aggressively, he could be on the podium in all three events,'' said Ohno, who is now working as an analyst for NBC.

Celski won the opening nine-lap time trial in 1 minute, 21.667 seconds. He came back later to claim the four-lap trial in 36.269 seconds.

Seeking her first Olympic appearance after missing out in 2010, Smith won the women's nine-lapper with a time of 1:28.117 and followed up with a victory in the four-lapper in 39.317. The former inline skater from Melvindale, Mich., finished one spot out of an Olympic berth in 2010.

Katherine Reutter, who won a silver and a bronze in Vancouver, was forced to retire last year because of injuries at 24, leaving a major void on the women's side. The U.S. will get only three female spots in Sochi because it failed to qualify for the relay.

Smith liked her results, especially in the nine-lapper where she recorded a personal best by nearly 2 seconds.

A skater who wins any of the three individual events is guaranteed an Olympic berth.

''Win one or win three, it doesn't matter,'' she said.

Both Celski, of Federal Way, Wash., and Smith earned a total of 1,000 points for their time trial victories, putting them atop their respective overall classification standings after Day 1. The top 16 men and 16 women advanced to three days of racing.

The top five in each of the men's time trials was the same.

Chris Creveling of Kintersville, Pa., was second in both races, followed by Eddy Alvarez, a former inline skater from Miami, John-Henry Krueger of Pittsburgh and Jordan Malone of Denton, Texas.

On the women's side, Emily Scott of Springfield, Mo., was second and Alyson Dudek of Hales Corners, Wis., third behind Smith in both time trials.

''The first day is always a little bit rough, but I came out feeling pretty good,'' Scott said.

The only skater to fall was 2010 Olympian Travis Jayner, who crashed on the straightaway in the nine-lap trial and was given a re-skate. He finished 16th, grabbing the last available spot.

''It's not the nicest way to start a competition,'' he said. ''To have to re-do it is always tough.''

Jayner was seventh in the four-lapper, putting him eighth in the overall classification.

''That was a good challenge,'' he said. ''I'm glad I didn't back down or get scared.''

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