Gangneung, South Korea • John-Henry Krueger wanted to treat this once-in-a-lifetime experience like a World Cup. He’s competed in South Korea dozens upon dozens of times, in training sessions or against the world’s top short-track speedskaters in various World Cup stops here.
After all, the American lived in Seoul for two years. The intimidating, yet adoring speedskating crowds don’t faze him.
In fact, on Saturday night at the Gangneung Ice Arena, the 22-year-old was in his comfort zone. It was his Olympic debut, but no matter. His approach? Make it like a “very popular World Cup competition.” It was working, too. He felt good in the men’s 1,500-meter semifinal event. He was out in front and then within striking distance and eventually firm in advancing position.
Then he felt a clip on the back of his blade, a nudge on the back of his leg. He managed to stay upright, but Hungary’s Shaolin Sandor Liu, who bumped Krueger, washed out and went down. Krueger, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, lost all momentum. It was later ruled that Krueger was penalized.
That was an unfortunate theme of the night for the U.S. short-track squad.
In the semifinal heat prior to Krueger, three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski was also penalized and disqualified from advancing to the medal round. Not the debut wanted by Krueger, who dominated U.S. trials in December, and not the desired debut for the U.S. team. Youngster Aaron Tran finished fifth in the men’s B final.
“We do this, we train to win,” Celski said, “so to come out here and not advance in the A final and the medal round is disappointing, but at the same time, like I said I gave it my best shot and that’s all I could’ve done.”
Krueger later disagreed with the judges’ ruling that he impeded Liu.
“Definitely off of first glance, I don’t think the call was correct, but I definitely need to go through the replay and video to reconfirm my opinion,” he said. “Part of the sport is to take the bad calls and the good calls, so tonight, I’m going to have to accept this call and just make sure it doesn’t squash my confidence for the upcoming races.”
The top two talents and medal threats for the U.S. will have to adopt a short-term memory. Celski has two events remaining in the 1,000-meter and the relay. Krueger has three in the 500 and 1,000 meter, plus the relay as well.
“I’m going to go out there and give it my best shot,” Celski said.
Krueger sounded the same.
“My Olympics,” he said, “definitely isn’t over.”
It wasn’t a total bummer for the Americans.
Maame Biney, the 18-year-old short-track phenom, advanced in the women’s 500-meter qualifiers Saturday night. Biney, who relocated to Utah from Reston, Va., finished second in her qualifying heat and will contend for a medal in her strongest event Tuesday night.