Celski and Smith earn Olympic short track berths

PAUL NEWBERRY (AP National Writer)
The Associated Press

KEARNS, Utah (AP) -- The pressure is off for J.R. Celski and Jessica Smith. They know they're going to Sochi.

That doesn't mean they're ready to slow down.

Celski and Smith won the 1,500 meters Friday night to claim the first two spots on the U.S. Olympic short track team.

Viewed as the leading American medal hope in the post-Apolo Anton Ohno era, Celski looked every bit the part with a dominating performance on the men's side. He already had won the time trial and skated to victories in both ''A'' finals to accumulate the maximum 2,500 points.

The second final was a downright breeze. Celski surged to the lead with four laps to go, then pulled away to win by nearly half a straightaway while everyone else jostled for position behind him.

''I kind of looked back and was like, 'What happened?''' Celski said. ''It was cool. I went out there and raced my race.''

Smith bounced back from the disappointment of just missing the U.S. team four years ago. After winning the time trial on Thursday, she raced to victory in the first 1,500 final. Knowing she only needed to finish second in round two, Smith skated a bit conservatively, held off Alyson Dudek and took the runner-up spot behind Emily Scott.

That gave Smith 2,300 points overall - 100 ahead of Scott and good enough to ensure a trip to Russia.

''I skated too conservative in the second 1,500 just to be safe and make sure I was where I needed to be,'' Smith said. ''But at the end of the day, I just wanted to be on the team.''

With that accomplished, both Celski and Smith will be looking to build on their programs for Sochi. Next up: the 500 on Saturday at the Utah Olympic Oval. The final event of the trials is the 1,500 on Sunday.

''I like to consider myself an all-around skater,'' Celski said. ''I practice and try to perform well in all the distances. We'll see what happens.''

Five men and three women will make the U.S. team for the Sochi Games.

Celski qualified for his second Olympic team after winning a pair of bronze medals at the 2010 Winter Games. He made that team after a serious injury sustained in a crash five months before the games, when his right skate sliced his left leg open, bruising his femoral artery and coming inches from severing it, which could have been fatal.

Ohno concluded his spectacular career in Vancouver, ending as the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian. Celski, whose hometown of Federal Way, Wash., is a suburb of Seattle, where Ohno is from, has positioned himself as a successor to the retired star.

''After Vancouver, I kind of had a feeling he wasn't going to skate anymore. I tried to assume his role, tried to take it over as best as I could,'' said Celski, who won with Ohno looking on as a television commentator. ''I really wanted to step up and lead this team, because I knew I could.''

Smith jumped up on the rink padding to high-five her coach, Jae Su Chun. He is serving a two-year suspension after being accused by a dozen national team members of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. He also was alleged to have ordered speedskater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of a Canadian rival.

Chun denied all allegations, and other members of the team - including Smith - came to his defense. He isn't allowed inside the racing area at the trials but can have contact with Smith.

Smith, a former inline skater from Melvindale, Mich., credited Chun with helping her transition to the ice.

''It's been a long, long journey,'' she said. ''He's been with me every step of the way, pushing me every step of the way.''

Eddy Alvarez, a former inline skater from Miami, was second on the men's side with 1,632 points. Chris Creveling, of Kintersville, Pa., was third with 1,528.

Creveling was disqualified in the second final for bumping Alvarez midway through the race when the skaters began jostling for position. That dropped Creveling to third in the overall standings, while Alvarez moved up to second.

Scott, of Springfield, Mo., had 2,200 points and Dudek, of Hales Corners, Wis., finished third for the women with 1,600.


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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