The risks of reward: the dangers of short track speedskating

During the semifinal 500m race at the 2010 Olympic trials for short track speedskating, the 19-year-old J.R. Celski let out agonizing screams as blood poured from a large wound on his inner thigh after he caught a turn too tight, which resulted in six inches of his own blade cutting into his leg, severing his muscle.

In another freak accident, former short-tracker Trevor Marsicano lost 50 percent of his blood volume on the ice to another skater’s blade in a 2004 race.

Even Apolo Ohno, a legendary U.S. Olympian, was tangled in a three-skater crash in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, just before crossing the finish line and ultimately winning silver with a gash on his left leg from his own razor-sharp skates.

Short track speedskating is traditionally one of the most-watched events in the Winter Games, according to Nielsen records, amounting to more than 22.5 million viewers on average during the 2010 Vancouver Games.

JR Celski

J.R. Celski (Photo credit to J.R. Celski Facebook page).

But few spectators know the high risks in the sport—until they witness such gruesome injuries.

A study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine after the Salt Lake City Games examined the training load related to injury for 95 elite-level skaters. The results showed that 61 of the 95 athletes sustained at least one injury during the previous season, and the most commonly reported places of injury were the knee, ankle, spine, leg and groin.

The two most common injuries occurring on-ice were ankle fractures (at 10.2 percent of athletes studied), and lacerations from the knee down (at 11.1 percent).

Leg laceration injuries, like those suffered by Celski and Marsicano, are caused by the skate blade itself. Men’s speedskating blades are generally 3.5 to 4 inches long, and one millimeter thick. The longer and sharper the blade, the faster the skate on the slippery ice surface, which is why this injury is so common compared to others.

To minimize the risk for these injuries, short track skating requires more safety equipment than long track, in which the athletes are actually armed with nothing but thin skin suits, protective glasses and their skates. Short track athletes wear skin-tight racing suits with hoods to decrease air resistance, glasses to protect their eyes from the wind and flying ice chips as well as to reduce the glare to improve the visibility of the track, and hard-shell helmets.

Additional safety equipment required in training and competitions, as stated in the U.S. Speedskating Rules and Regulations, include gloves, shin protection, padded knee protection, neck pads and sharp round-edge speed skates conforming to the most current International Skating Union (ISU) regulations. These standards are available to the public on the official U.S. Speedskatingwebsite.

But, as in all high-level competition sports, the modern, high-end safety equipment in short track speedskating will never be able to prevent all injuries on the ice. The sharp turns and high speeds commonly lead to on-ice injury, like that of three-time Olympian and Sochi hopeful Allison Baver.

The 33-year-old U.S. skater was mid-race at the ISU World Cup on Feb. 8, 2009, when she and one of her teammates collided. Baver sustained a spiral fracture in her right leg, split her tibia, and also experienced significant damage to her ankle. Like many skaters, Baver was able eventually to recover but only after an intense physical-therapy treatment involving six-hour rehab sessions of stationary bicycling, squats and deep stretching.

These same exercises are central in the treatment and recovery plan created by Dr. Eric Heiden, a retired five-time Olympic gold medalist in speedskating. He now uses them with Celski and Baver.

In the few months between the Vancouver Games and his injury, Celski was able to finish physical rehabilitation and ice training in time to return to his spot on Team USA and compete in Vancouver, where he had a breakout performance and won the bronze medal in both the 1500m and the 5000m relay event. Baver also made it onto the American team just short of one year after breaking her leg, and she finished in Vancouver with the bronze medal in the women’s 3000m relay.

J.R. Celski

J.R. Celski leads the pack. (Photo credit to J.R. Celski Facebook page).

Looking forward to Sochi, Celski set the world record in the 500m with a time of 39.937, which makes him the fastest men’s skater in the world. Revisiting his injury during a teleconference in early September, Celski said while he was still successful in the 2010 Games, he only now finally feels like he and his skating are “back to normal.” He also said he is eager to assume the leadership position on the team left vacant when Apolo Ohno retired at the end of the Vancouver Games.

“We’re making progress as a team,” said Celski. “Apolo was definitely a huge inspiration to us all, but we’re not a one-person team anymore. We’ll be ready.”

Both Celski and Baver competed for an Olympic team spot during the short track trials in early January, but only Celski was successful in securing a team spot this year.

While Celski, Baver and the retired Trevor Marsicano have all experienced that pain and disappointment on the ice firsthand, their stances on the total risk and reward are in agreement that, for them, the risk of injury is absolutely worth the reward of self-pride and passion for the sport.


BSU at the Games is a freelance news agency operated by 22 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program at Ball State University.


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