How does a guy who has had the quadriceps on his left leg accidentally sliced through manage to win an Olympic speed skating medal? How does he do it only five months after they were sundered? A person who can accomplish that has a pretty amazing leg, or perhaps an incredible drive to succeed. The person at the 2010 Winter Olympics who had such a miracle leg was American short track speedskater J.R. Celski, and the evidence that he and his injured leg are really special is that he won the bronze medal in the 1500m event.
On September 12th, 2009, at the sport’s U.S. Olympic Trials, JR Celski was skating in the semifinals of the 500m when he crashed into the protective wall on the last lap. He hit it hard and at an angle that thrust the blade of his right skate into his left thigh. The stabbing was 6″ wide and 2″ deep, cutting to the bone and missing his femoral artery by only an inch. Not knowing what else to do, Celski pulled the embedded blade out his leg himself, and he felt it.
With the blade out, Celski was overwhelmed by what he saw. He described the interior of wound as being a rainbow of colors. “It was blue, purple, yellow, red, white. I could see my femur.”
Celski cried out.
The situation became worse as Celski was taken to a hospital. He was taken in an ambulance that for whatever reason was driven at a regular pace, without a siren, and even stopping at lights. At the hospital, there were no surgeons on duty. At a least one moment during the night, Celski believed that he was going to die.
Eventually Celski was operated on, with his muscles sewn back together. The opening in the flesh was closed with some 60 stitches. But to Celski, it seemed that his skating career was over.
However, Celski knew that he had qualified for the U.S. team – he just needed to get better. So he and his father went to Park City, Utah, to meet with Dr. Eric Heiden, the five-time gold medalist and team orthopedist for U.S. Speedskating. Heiden evaluated the injury and helped put together a treatment plan. After that Celski went to the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to start the program. The plan would be overseen by staff doctor Bill Moreau. Moreau tried to be realistic, telling Celski, “J.R., I don’t know if you can do this.”
Celski was undeterred and began the rehabilitation program with gusto. He started with things like riding a stationary bike, walking, and doing hydro-therapy. Celski was increasingly pushed by his therapists and he pushed himself harder.
Celski’s training regimen consisted of 3 or 4 hours on the ice and then the same amount of time running, biking, weight training, doing coordination drills and stretching. He would do it six days a week. Relaxation would come with time spent in the sauna.
By October, Celski was able to stop using crutches and by the middle of November he was back on the ice. He was able to skate, but only very slowly. It was eight weeks until the Olympics.
With great determination and grit Celski persevered and miraculously brought himself back to a competitive level in the remaining two months. He would fall and even crash in practice, but his inner strength proved to be invincible. He conquered both the physical injury and the mental challenge that comes with such a devastating injury.
For Celski, the 6″ scar on his leg has become a reminder of just how far he has come. He wants to keep it gruesome so he won’t forget. He said, “People keep telling me to put vitamin E on it. I’m not going to do anything to it. I want to be reminded of what I overcame.”
Celski made it to Vancouver and there he made sure everyone else knew about the injury and the scar, and could see what he had dealt with. On his cell phone he would show anyone that would look a photo of the open wound before he was operated on.
There in Vancouver, Celski created another Olympic “Miracle on Ice”, winning the bronze medal in the 1500m. Where for some it would be a success to walk again or to be able to get back on skates again, for Celski the only worthy goal was to get an Olympic medal. Fortunately, he had that pair of incredible legs that could recover from such a horrendous injury in such an amazingly short time. Of course, it also helped that those legs were part of an incredible person with a spirit that wouldn’t let terrible adversity prevent him from realizing his dream.