US speedskater Celski’s comeback almost complete

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KEARNS, Utah (AP) — Now that his thigh has healed from a gruesome gash caused by his own skate blade, American short track speedskater J.R. Celski is trying to restore his confidence.

Going full speed in a pack of skaters zipping around the rink can be a little hairy. Doing it four months after slicing his thigh to the bone, Celski still has some jitters.

“I’m trying to stay positive when I go fast now, but it’s a little difficult. I’m not going to lie about it,” Celski said Tuesday, exactly one month before he skates in the Olympic 1,500 meters. “It’s slowly coming back. I still have a couple weeks to gain it back.”

Celski, a 19-year-old from Federal Way, Wash., is just weeks from making his Olympic debut and only months removed from the crash that easily could have ended his young career.

Celski slid into the boards feet-first during a 500 meter semifinal heat during the U.S. short track championships on Sept. 12. His right foot was jarred into his left thigh on impact and the blade sliced deep, spilling blood on the ice at the Northern Michigan University.

Celski said the blade missed his femoral artery by about an inch.

“I pulled my blade out of my leg and looked at it. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was an experience,” he said. “It was actually pretty cool, though.”

Celski was America’s new, brash talent, expected to join two-time Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno in a U.S. push for short track medals. He won the 3,000 meters at the 2009 world championships and took bronze in the 1,000 and 1,500.

“He’s been kind of a phenom in the sport,” said Ohno, a veteran with five Olympic medals. “He’s very, very young. A ton of potential.”

Ohno said he witnessed the frightening scene after the crash as emergency personnel tended to Celski, trying to stop the bleeding and carting him off the ice on a stretcher.

“Our sport is like that. It’s a dangerous sport,” Ohno said. “We skate with 17, 18-inch samurai swords on our feet. Anything can happen.”

Celski had surgery in Michigan and thought his prospects of skating in Vancouver were bleak at best. He spent about six weeks on crutches before returning to the ice in mid-November. Dr. Eric Heiden, who won five long-track gold medals at the Lake Placid Olympics 30 years ago, helped Celski plan his rehabilitation.

When he was ready, Celski started training with members of the U.S. women’s team as he tried to regain his strength and speed — and shake the apprehensions still lingering in his mind.

“I was a little scared still to kind of test myself. I started out slow and kind of built and progressed over time,” Celski said. “We take these corners so fast it’s kind of a blur sometimes. But if you’re comfortable and you’re confident with yourself then you’ll be able to do it.”

Celski already had enough points before his crash to be nominated to the U.S. Olympic team. He will skate in the 1,000 meters, 1,500 and relay in Vancouver. He knows how close he was to just being a spectator.

“My life was almost taken away from me, so I’m kind of realizing that life is different than I thought it was before I fell,” he said. “At first it was really hard, but after that I got into a rhythm and wanted to propel myself and get back out here. I made it happen.”