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An improbable sixth for Ohno; Celski third

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 13, 2010 09:17 PM

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia, 10:42 p.m. -- Short-track speedskating is known for its wild finishes and improbable plot twists.

But the stunning, whoa-did-that-just-happen development that led to Apolo Anton Ohno tying a record for US winter athletes with his sixth Olympic medal tonight? Well, even after seeing it and seeing it again, you may not believe it actually happened.

In the waning moments of the final of the 1,500 meters, Ohno appeared to be edged off the podium, lagging in fourth place with the finish line just meters away and lacking an opening that would help him tie Bonnie Blair's standard.

Then, a crash and a collective gasp. A pair of skaters ahead of Ohno tumbled to the ice. And Ohno's path to the podium -- not to mention that of J.R. Celski, the perceived future of the sport in the US -- was suddenly as clear as the ice in front of him. It was as if someone's secret wish had been granted.

When the jaws were picked up off the floor here in the Pacific Coliseum, the final tally read silver for Ohno -- his six-pack of medals now includes two of each -- a bronze for Celski, who wore a wide-eyed look of utter joy on the podium, and gold for Lee Jung-su of Korea, who was safely ahead of the wipeout behind him, winning in 2:17.611.

While marveling at the finish and Ohno's fortune and feats, we must acknowledge the heartbreak for Korean's Ho-Suk Lee and Si-Bak Sung, who were strides from the podium themselves when disaster struck.

Then again, they are surely long aware of the truth. That's the way of the sport.

* * *

10:31 p.m. Here we go. Ohno, ranked fifth in the world, will start from the No. 2 position. Lee Jung-su, who edged Ohno in the semis and is No. 1 in the world, starts first. J.R. Celski, whose background is similar to Ohno's, begins in the fifth spot.

The biggest ovation in intros, naturally, goes to Canada's Jean Olivier, who starts seventh.

9:42 p.m., update: Not sure if it comes across this way on television, but when watching short-track speedskating live, you feel a similar tension to what you feel watching a NASCAR race when a crash seems inevitable.

And that's especially true when someone has as much at stake as Ohno does tonight. Which is part of the charm of the sport -- as well as one reason why the fearless Ohno is so accomplished at it.

With some daring maneuvering with two laps remaining, Ohno's quest for a sixth medal remained plausible tonight. Starting from the final spot, he moved to third place with nine laps remaining, then deftly moved up to second, cutting inside of Canada's Charles Hamelin with a risky move with two laps left to secure a place in the finals. South Korea's Lee Jung-su finished first.

Ohno will be joined by fellow American J.R. Celski, who finished second in his semifinal.

Hamelin, who briefly moved into first place in Ohno's semi to the roaring approval of the crowd, finished third and did not advance.

* * *

9:12 p.m. Judging by the first head tonight, Ohno knows what he's doing . . . of course, that probably goes without saying given that the short-track speedskating idol already has had five medals draped around his neck during his two previous appearances in the Winter Olympic games.

Nonetheless, he couldn't have been more impressive in his first heat of the 1,500 meters tonight here at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver as he attempts to win his sixth Olympic medal.

The 27-year-old literally coasted to victory in his heat, the fifth of the night, lagging behind the pack until there were three laps remaining in the 13.5 lap race, then making his move and blowing past four skaters on the outside, the impressive scene enhanced by two of his competitors toppling to the ice in his wake. Ohno's time of 2:17.653 was nearly a full second better than second-place finisher Pieter Gysel of Belgium. J.R. Celski of the US finished second in the third heat to also reach the seminfinals.

* * *

Should Ohno medal in the 1,500 tonight -- and I suspect Bob Costas has already and often told you the information to follow, given that it's one of the most anticipated stories of these Games -- he would break a tie with long-track speedskating superhero Eric Heiden for the most winter medals won by an American male, and he would tie Bonnie Blair for the most medals won by a US athlete in the Winter Games.

There might be an ever-so-slight exaggeration to Ohno's quest, something he has acknowledged -- after all, Blair won five golds, and Heiden won five alone during his historic performance in 1980 at Lake Placid. Ohno, who will compete in five races here, owns two golds entering tonight.

* * *

The crowd, which has filled out (we'll call it "slightly late arriving") to close to the venue's 14,200 capacity, is raucously in favor of the former "Dancing With The Stars" champ, and there is a good-time vibe all around; it's safe to assume more than few $10 beers from the concession stands have been consumed.

There's silence only in the seconds before the starting gun, the fans, a large majority of whom are adorned it at least one article of clothing that says "Canada," groan in unison at false starts, then bang cowbells and escalate their cheers as the heat nears its conclusion.

The public address announcer talks almost non-stop during the heats, and in the few moments he pauses to fill his lungs, music is pumped over the public address system; there's a definite predilection toward '90s grunge. I'm pretty sure I haven't heard "Machinehead" by Bush since my wardrobe featured flannel, but the lyrics do seem appropriate to the event.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in . . .

We'll be back with more on Ohno's quest on at the top of this post, so be sure to stick around.

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