GANGNEUNG, South Korea — At the center of an arena still pulsing with life, under the watch of a hundred cameras and the parents who had winced and ached at every near miss, John-Henry Krueger found a place to rest his head Saturday night.
He slid down the wall where his coach watched, fell to his knees and pressed his head to the ice. The training decisions that tested his family and the health scares that tested his will found their places in that mental folder labeled “worth it.”
Krueger, 22, won the silver medal in the 1,000-meter short-track speedskating event, becoming the first American man to win an individual short-track medal since Vancouver.
In a sport with razor-thin margins and near-imperceptible vagaries, Krueger knows both sides of the calls and the breaks. On Saturday, he nearly didn’t escape his quarterfinal heat. A Dutch skater bumped him, sent him spinning out of the pack and seemingly out of contention. He finished fourth. He needed third. But then the judges called a penalty on the Dutch skater, moving Krueger up to third and into the semifinals.
Four years ago, Krueger was well positioned to make the U.S. team headed for the Sochi Games. But just before the trials, his mother, Heidi, found him on the floor of the bathroom, unable to move, sick with swine flu, a scene she said she still “can’t unsee.” Krueger couldn’t compete, and U.S. Speedskating rules didn’t allow for an exception.
Bad fortune followed him here. In his 1,500-meter race a week earlier, he was penalized early and didn’t make the final because of a judges’ ruling with which he disagreed.
So Saturday night’s podium finish was both an achievement and a vindication after past doubts and disappointments.
“The most important part of short track is just keeping your composure and your calm,” Krueger said.
In the semifinal, Krueger had to skate through the wall of sound that builds here when a Korean short-track skater takes the ice. Krueger shot to the front of the pack and stayed there for most of the race, fending off Korean Yira Seo to win the heat — and head to his first Olympic final.
The sound didn’t bother him. Krueger knows how Koreans revere the sport. He trained with Korean coaches since age 7, driving three-plus hours to Washington, D.C., from Pittsburgh just to work with them in his developmental years. He spent two years in Seoul during this Olympic cycle to continue working with the gurus of the sport.
Krueger is, as his mother put it, “American on the outside, Korean under the hood.” A figure skating coach, she was the one who drove him to the District for those crucial years, who stayed with him and his brothers at a campground in College Park, Md. when they couldn’t afford hotels. She realized the importance of good coaching — the kind Koreans could give him.
“Washington, D.C., was like Korea light,” Krueger said. “Korea was the real deal.”
Despite the foundation he built there, Krueger decided to leave Seoul a year before these Olympics to head to a small town in the Netherlands for more individual training with Dutch coach Jeroen Otter.
“Switching from Korea to the Netherlands was a huge jump, especially going into the Games,” Krueger said. “but my mind-set going into the Games was I’d rather make a huge change and fail completely than to stay in the same place and not improve at all.”
The international moves placed financial burdens that, even partially offset by GoFundMe contributions, he and his parents will be paying off for years. But years ago, his parents sat at the dinner table and agreed to let him see how far he could go.
The training paid off. He led or was near the front for most of the final. Racing for the third time in an hour and a half, he skated strong. Deciding the best strategy would be the most grueling, pushing himself to stay near the front of the pack from start to finish, he did not wane.
On the last lap, the traffic behind him resulted in a pileup, and the rest of the field slid away. He looked around, saw eventual gold medalist Samuel Girard of Canada ahead of him but knew he had left the adversity behind. He skated over the line in second. He jumped over a wall to hug his coach. Then he slid down to the ice, realizing his choices — about where to train, about where to skate, about how to race — had resulted in an Olympic medal.
“The journey me and my parents have been through the last few years, it’s been filled with adversities,” Krueger said. “. . . Besides getting the Olympic medal, I think the second-greatest thing was knowing all the decisions I made leading up to these Games were right.”
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