Ice Network

Familiar champs Smith, Celski rule 500 heats

Dudek, Alvarez snag silvers to make World Cup team
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Alyson Dudek (left) and Jessica Smith claimed the women's World Cup spots in the 500.

For the first time in three days of racing, J.R. Celski didn't cross the finish line first.

The newly crowned U.S. 500-meter champion just smiled when asked about it, admitting he hadn't realized the extent of his dominance in the 2013 U.S. Single Distance Short Track Championships at the Utah Olympic Oval this weekend.

"I guess that's true," he said, after he accepted his second gold medal in two days by winning both 500-meter finals. "It was just a semi, and I took it easy. Well, not easy, but leading gets a little tough, especially in the 500."

So when Chris Creveling executed a perfect inside pass in the second 500 semifinal of the day, Celski didn't let it bother him.

He just came out in the men's final about 40 minutes later, and beat a talented field in a tough race for his second final's victory of the day.

"It was good, and it felt really nice," Celski said with a smile. "The 500 is a fun distance."

Celski, who won a bronze medal in the 1,500 in Vancouver, had moderate success in the 500 last year. He said he still felt he had something to prove Saturday.

"I did pretty good last year, and I wanted to prove to myself that I was going to skate it well," he said.

With the championship, Celski earns a spot in the 500 during World Cup competition. His childhood friend, Eddy Alvarez, overcame a tough day of racing on Friday to earn second place overall. Alvarez was disqualified during the qualifying rounds of the first 1,500-meter race Friday, but he did manage to finish second behind Celski in the second 1,500 meter on Friday.

The two exchanged a special handshake they said they developed a couple of years ago as they took their places on the podium next to third-place finisher Chris Creveling.

"We've been racing together since we were 6," said Celski of his friendship with Alvarez. "It's going to be a good race between me and Eddy."

Alvarez said all he had to do to ensure his second-place finish in a very talented men's field was look for his buddy.

"I tried to keep my composure," Alvarez said of his success Saturday. "Yesterday was a tough day for me. I know that I have the speed and passing ability. I just try to stay calm and get behind J.R."

When asked what makes Celski so consistent in such an unpredictable sport, he used a more flowery tone of voice to describe the secret.

"Because he skates so pretty," he laughed. And then he got serious. "He's an unbelievable athlete and unbelievable on his skates. I like seeing him a little bit in front of me. It gives me a goal."

The two met when they were first graders, and interestingly, it wasn't Celski who was the more successful of the two.

"When we first started, he always beat me," Celski said. "We always kind of battled, and at the end of the day, I really looked up to that kid. He took a break for a while, I took a break for a while, and now we're back short track racing, butting heads again, so it's cool."

There were a lot of falls in the men's races, which most of the racers see as an unfortunate part of the sport.

"That's just how the sport is," Alvarez said. "It's a sport of unexpected events. You never know what's going to happen."

The women saw two different skaters win a final, but yesterday's 1500 champion, Jessica Smith, managed to earn the 500-meter championship Saturday as well.

Smith finished second in the first 500 final, while Alyson Dudek won the first final and finished just behind Smith in the second 500 final.

"Every race is different," Dudek said. "The racing has been really good. It's good for us because when we race internationally, it only gets tougher. There are amazing athletes all over the world."

Dudek loves the 500 and said she was thrilled to win the first race and is pleased that she secured a World Cup team spot in that event.

"That was my goal," she said of making the World Cup team. "I love the 500. I have a blast doing it. The racing was really good, and it challenged me, and that's what I wanted. It will help me become a better skater."

She said Saturday's success gives her "a lot to build on. Things can only get better."

Smith was one of the few athletes bothered enough by the falls that when she took the ice for the second 500 final, she checked the ice where she would need to skate.

"I always get worried when people fall," she said. "It's not fun to see because you just don't know in short track, and however someone ends up in the pads, you just never know what the outcome is. Before that [final] race, I was getting my helmet on and there was a big, old hole in the ice -- and it was coming right out of the corner."

Officials delayed the women's final while crews fixed the hole.

"If any of us hit that, there is no telling what would happen," she said.

Unlike Dudek, Smith doesn't really have a favorite distance.

"I just enjoy racing," she said. "I don't really care the distance."

She said she had to change her strategy to move from second to first and claim the overall championship.

"The first 500, I played it a bit more safe," Smith said. "I didn't really have any opportunity to get by, and I was secured with second, so I didn't want to press it. So I just had to stay safe in that race. Coming into that last final, I just wanted to skate a different type of race, different type of strategy and see what would happen with it. And it ended up working well."

Smith said she's working on staying calm, especially in the 500-meter races where athletes tend to gamble when they don't need to at times.

"500 meters to most people, and to me also, is a short race," she said. "But there is also a lot of opportunity. And sometimes my biggest problem is trying to take advantage of an opportunity that's not always there in the race. Then you have to rebuild, and in 500 meters, you only have one chance, one spot. You can't really make a mistake. You're all in, so you're either in the back or you're going for the win."

Her confidence increases with every race.

"I'm excited," Smith said of earning two U.S. championships in two days. "I'm pleased with my racing. I'm getting and gaining more experience each day. … It makes me excited to know that I'm able to do the things that I've been working on."

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