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Sarah D. Morris: a love affair with short-track speedskating

February 17, 2010 |  1:15 am
Apolo Apolo Anton Ohno tied for the most medals won by an American Winter Olympian on Saturday. His longevity in short-track speedskating has helped give the sport added popularity around the world. Wednesday, Ohno can become the most decorated American Winter athlete.

At the 1992 Winter Olympics held in Albertville, France, short-track speedskating became an official Winter Olympic sport. When people see short-track speedskating, it doesn't appear to belong in the Winter Olympics. Its unpredictable nature can annoy some people, but while watching it, people realize this sport requires supreme conditioning and extraordinary skating skill.

In 1992 while watching short-track speedskating's debut, I remember wondering why the International Olympic Committee  made this confusing sport an Olympic event.  However, now I can't imagine having Winter Olympics without it.  I love its unpredictability and excitement. 

Since the 1980 Olympics when Eric Heiden won five individual gold medals, my favorite Winter Olympic sport has been speedskating. A speedskater goes about 35 mph. While an Alpine skier, bobsledder, and luger go faster, these sports have the added aid of gravity. Speedskating doesn't. Speedskaters rely on their strength and technique to go fast. Their races are controlled.  Each skater has his or her own lane, so passing is usually safe. Over the last 30 years speedskating has produced some of the biggest American Olympic stars. 
Since its conception, short-track speedskating has produced improbable and memorable finishes. The rink used for short-track is the same size as international hockey. The smaller rink produces many frequent turns. From four to six skaters race together, and no skater has a separate lane.

Passing is a vital element of short-track. If a skater doesn't finish the race first, he or she doesn't win.  Skaters often jockey for  position.  Sometimes in short-track races, the participants attempt to block competitors from passing. Though judges try to limit blocking, it still happens. Competitors sometimes gently bump the other racers out of their way. Because many racers are in a small area, they often trip over each other or knock each other down. Wipeouts, where more than one skater falls, are extremely common and frequently decide the medals, as in Saturday's race.

The success of Ohno amazes most people.  Growing up with a single father in the Seattle area, Ohno became involved in sports to avoid being a latchkey child.  After watching the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, the young Ohno became fascinated with the sport.  His father began coaching him. Like many fathers and sons, the Ohnos often disagreed, but the young Ohno improved to the world-class level. 

At 19, Ohno made the United States Olympic team for Salt Lake City, but not many expected anything from him. Koreans have dominated short-track speedskating. His first Olympic medal came when Koreans knocked each other down. He became an instant Olympic celebrity with his good looks and cheerful attitude. 

When Ohno returned to the Olympics in 2006, he dominated. Not many people thought Ohno would return for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He took a vacation from the sport to follow other interests. Ohno believed that he would retire, but the lure of having the Winter Olympics close to where he grew up proved too appealing.

A rededicated Ohno worked out in three two-hour sessions a day.  He has followed a strict diet to get his fat percentage to 2.5.  He enters this Olympics in the best shape of his life. In his first Olympic race, he captured the silver medal after two South Koreans collided and fell. He has more races coming. 

America's love with short-track speedskating began with the charismatic Ohno, but on Saturday we saw the future of American short-track speedskating. 

Though J.R. Celski earned a desired Olympic spot in September, the 19-year-old didn't know if he would be able to be an Olympian or able to walk. During the  Olympic trials, Celski seriously cut his leg with his own skate. Not many, including Celski, thought he would compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics. With the help of doctors, including the famous Dr. Eric Heiden, and physical therapists, Celski returned to competitive skating.  Celski, another Seattle area native, captured the bronze medal. 

Ohno made Americans notice short-track speedskating and fall in love with the unpredictable sport. In Vancouver, the United States has the deepest and most talented short-track speedskating team in our Olympic participation. The sport should thank Ohno for its popularity. The evolution of the sport over the future Olympics should be fascinating to witness.

-- Sarah D. Morris

Morris has  been writing for the Dodgers website since August 2001. Since early in her childhood, she has watched and enjoyed the Winter Olympics and Dodgers baseball. She dreamed of being a sportswriter after completing junior college though she has cerebral palsy. Her articles can be found here.

Photo: Apolo Anton Ohno competes in the men's 1500-meter final on Sunday. Credit: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images