J.R. Celski retires after three Olympics, three medals in short track

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J.R. Celski, the top U.S. short track speed skater of the last decade, retired after three Olympics, where he combined for one silver and two bronze medals.

“I’ve contemplated for a long time,” said Celski, a 28-year-old from Federal Way, Wash., who now attends the University of Utah. “It’s a good time to move on and start a new chapter in my life. That’s where I’m at right now.

“I didn’t think it would affect me as much as it has, like I was going to be immune to the emotions that come along with retirement or something,” Celski said in a 1,500-word open letter. “I felt like I could just sneak out under the radar and carry on with the next chapter in my life. I don’t know how else to say it other than I needed to finally face the reality of things.”

Celski’s enduring story has to be his comeback from suffering a seven-inch-long, two-inch-deep gash in his left quad when he crashed at the September 2009 Olympic Trials.

His skate blade punctured his leg one inch from the femoral artery. Celski could see bone through the gash as he was lifted on a stretcher. He said he thought he might die. Sixty stitches closed the wound.

Less than five months later, Celski earned 1500m and relay bronze medals at his first Olympics in Vancouver.

“The most celebrated and inspirational stories told in this world are born out of struggle,” he wrote. “They are stories of man and woman’s ability to overcome some form of hardship, and go on to do something great. It shakes us to our core every time, without failure. It is the very thing that defines us as humans.”

After executive producing a documentary featuring Macklemore, Celski took another Olympic run for Sochi. He earned a relay silver in 2014 and finished fourth in the 1500m, missing a medal by six tenths of a second.

Celski ended his career last winter with a best finish in three PyeongChang events of fifth in the relay and an appearance at the world championships. He knew before the season that it would be his last — after enduring hip surgery and knee and back injuries in that Olympic cycle — but kept the decision private.

“The thing I’m going to miss most about short track is the dynamics of the sport,” said Celski, who picked up short track around age 12, after first skating inline at 3. “There’s so much you need to pay attention to in training and prepare yourself for. You can’t just be fast. You can’t just be strong. You can’t just be agile. You have to be multiple dimensions in the sport.”

Celski also earned eight world championships medals, the last coming in 2014 when he ranked second overall. He also held world records in the 500m (first man to break 40 seconds) and the 5000m relay.

Celski took one year off from the sport after both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, but this break will be permanent. He’s studying business at Utah and will stay involved in the sport. His year-old, co-founded company, Nalza, produces speed skating equipment.

“I went into taking those years off after the Olympics previously kind of with the thought that I’d come back. This time it’s different. I guess it’s the only way I can describe it,” he said. “I don’t think as the Olympics get close it’s going to pull me back anymore. I feel like I’ve been through what I needed to go through. I’m really thankful to have competed as long as I have, skated alongside the teammates I had.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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