This holiday season, the most fulfilling parts of life for America’s great Olympic short-track speedskating hope come in rapid bursts of intensity — blink and he’ll miss them. The journeys that follow take a lot longer
Last weekend John-Henry Krueger, 22, scorched the ice at the United States Olympic trials in Salt Lake City to book his place at February’s Winter Games, four years after his dreams of a spot in Sochi were crushed by swine flu contracted a day before the qualifier.
This time, his mother Heidi sat watching intently, eyes glued to the glistening, treacherous surface. The scene unfolding before her was one of dominance. Krueger was peerless at Kearns Olympic Oval, winning four of six events (each of short-track’s three distances were skated twice) and never placing worse than third, to finish on top of the points standings by a street.
Yet if Krueger’s status as an Olympic medal contender is built on raw speed and flawless technique, what came next was a test of endurance. Mother and son shared a drive that slogged its way from Salt Lake, through the sleepy roads of Wyoming and Nebraska and seven other states, back to the family’s home in the Peters Township area of Pittsburgh.
“The road trip has basically been me trying to distract my mom’s eyes from the speedometer so I can go as fast as humanly possible,” Krueger laughed, during a telephone conversation with USA TODAY Sports early in the journey. “I am known for overestimating my strengths during long trips. I think ‘oh, we can do the whole (1,844-mile) drive in one sitting, no problem’, then I drive four hours and I am like ‘OK, let’s rethink.’”
On Monday night the Kruegers made it to Omaha, slept a few hours, then woke at 4 a.m. to complete the mission.
Waiting at home was father Bryan, who opted against journeying to Utah as the stresses of major competition get his nerves jangling. It is easy to see why. Short-track’s appeal and entertainment lies in its unpredictability and inherent danger and even the most seasoned campaigner can fall afoul of rotten luck or simple misjudgment. During trials triple Olympic medalist J.R. Celski tumbled to the ice no fewer than four times.
Bryan is a corporate accountant, Heidi a figure skating coach, and while they are comfortably off, speed skating at elite levels can be painfully expensive. Skate blades alone can run into thousands of dollars. Major corporate sponsorships for the sport are tough to come by even in an Olympic year, and next to impossible at other times.
Krueger’s costs are increased by opting to follow his own training path, basing himself first in South Korea and now the Netherlands on the advice of former U.S. national team coach Jae Su Chun.
“If I was in the U.S. program training would be free,” Krueger said. “But there is only one opportunity in your life to not only be a professional athlete but to be at your peak performance. Everywhere I travel all over the world is part of the bigger picture of trying to reach my maximum potential. Trying to find what works best for me.”
The time away from home has had a twofold effect of improving his skating power and forcing him to grow up in a hurry. It shows. “John-Henry’s greatest strength is his maturity and that is because of the experiences he has had and the people he has worked with,” said Hall of Famer Jack Mortell, who has held an abundance of positions within the sport and who gave Krueger off-ice guidance last weekend.
Mortell pointed out that Krueger’s trials performance was doubly impressive given that he didn’t have a coach at ice level calling out in-race tactical advice.
The Kruegers don’t get to see their sons anywhere near as much as they’d all like. Cole can’t come home this year as Hungary’s squad still has spots up for grabs. Having John-Henry around during the festive season is a rare treat for his parents, but comes with a bittersweet twist far less tasty than one of Heidi’s famed pumpkin spice cookies. The trip will be cut short, much like a short-track race that begins with a perfect start before being hastily ended with an untimely collision.
“I get to have the boys home so infrequently so I am thrilled for whatever amount of time I get,” Heidi Krueger said. “But it won’t be long…(sigh)…before we have to jump in the car and go.”
After getting up on Christmas morning for gifts and breakfast casserole, cinnamon rolls and monkey bread, thoughts will soon return to the road again. While the festivities are just warming up in most American homes, the Kruegers will leave the house at lunchtime and drive more than four hours to Washington D.C. so that John-Henry can catch a flight to Amsterdam. From there he will board a train to the north of the Netherlands, where he trains with renowned Dutch coach Jeroen Otter in the backwater town of Heerenveen.
The drive to D.C. will bring back memories of the boys’ youth, when the Kruegers made twice-weekly round trips to the capital for elite training sessions, often not getting back until 4.30 a.m. They would stay at campgrounds and be hosted for dinner by some of the local Korean-American families that gravitate towards short-track, which is one of the most popular sports in Seoul and beyond.
“It was a lot of effort but the most important thing was we were together,” Heidi added. “Skating was the framework and the purpose behind it, but for us it was family time and it was special.”
Early in their careers, John-Henry and Cole weren’t the only ones to enjoy their mother’s cooking, though they sometimes had to help out in the kitchen and did their own laundry from age 11. At times there were a dozen or more short-trackers who moved to the ‘Burgh for training and found a temporary slice of home in the Krueger household. One of them, Ryan Pivirotto, also made the 2018 Olympic team.
“It was as warm a welcome as you could get,” Pivirotto said. “I was there for about a year and I remember delicious food, an army of people in the house, and somehow it all worked.”
In February, the Pivirotto and Krueger parents will stay an hour north of Pyeongchang to cut costs, with Olympic price gouging having become a sport of its own. They will make their own meals, take buses to see the events, and get by. They’re “not there for a vacation” as Heidi says, but to offer their support. Just like they always have.
“I don’t know any other family that has the drive and passion for the sport that mine does,” Krueger said.
It’s won’t be a typical Christmas, and with the opening ceremony six weeks away, it is certainly not a typical year. It’s hardly a typical life nor a typical family either, and Krueger cherishes the way his parents’ backing has propelled his sporting aspirations.
“The way we do things makes me feel like nothing can stand in my way,” Krueger said, as more Midwestern plains rolled by. “It makes you feel invincible.”