One eye on U.S. track fight

ALISON KORN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:13 AM ET

As Canada's Olympic short-track speedskaters prepare to leave today for the first two World Cups of the season, they're keeping a wary eye on the U.S. team selection drama playing out this week south of the border.

At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, flashy American Apolo Anton Ohno beat Canuck Francois-Louis Tremblay of Montreal for gold in the 500 metres.

Since then, times have changed. Ohno, 27, is now fighting for top rank on the U.S. team against a young upstart -- 19-year-old J.R. Celski, who won a 1,000-metre time trial Tuesday. Ohno is a five-time Olympic medallist who became famous even among non-sports fans when he won ABC's Dancing With the Stars in 2007.

Celski later bested Ohno a second time Tuesday when they were paired in the four-lap time trial. Competition continues until Saturday in Marquette, Mich.

"It's a little confidence boost," Celski said. "It's the first meet of the season and it doesn't even feel like I'm at a meet.

"I'm not even nervous."

Nerves are not a bad thing -- they show you care -- so perhaps Celski shouldn't be bragging about that just yet.

Meanwhile, the Canadian veteran, Tremblay, is 29 and has three Olympic medals in his collection but didn't race at the Canadian trials in August because of an ankle injury. He was named to the 2010 Canadian Olympic team based on past results. So, how closely is Tremblay monitoring the U.S. results right now?

"Yeah, we follow that," Tremblay said. "Our coach has some connections in U.S. speedskating and informs us what's going on. I don't worry about (Ohno) too much. He will improve throughout the year also."

Tremblay, sounding unruffled, could just as easily have been talking about himself. As Canada's only male individual medallist from short track in Turin, he has won 14 medals in 16 World Cup races in the 500 metres over the past three years. He is also a three-time World Cup champion in the distance.

By not racing the Canadian Olympic trials last month, Tremblay benefited from extra time to heal and is now going overseas in an untested state.

"I have no more pain, I have no more balance problems or strength problems, it's all in the past," Tremblay said.

"My shape is pretty much back, we'll see how it goes in competition."

The first two World Cups are scheduled for Beijing, China, Sept. 17-20, and Seoul, Korea, Sept. 24-27.

Though the U.S. selection may be the most intriguing foreign team news for the Canadians to keep tabs on at the moment, their key rivals also include Korea and China. But since the other countries' selections aren't as transparent, the Canadians don't yet know whom they'll face on the starting line.

Canadian pride is at stake. While the national team's practice sessions used to feature athletes wearing a colourful assortment of other nations' skin suits that they'd traded for after competition, those days are over. Speed Skating Canada no longer allows its athletes to trade gear or wear other countries' stuff, even in practice.

"More and more skaters always came with more and more skin suits and it was interesting to see who had the coolest one," Tremblay said. "It was fun to do that. Everybody now skates with Canada gear in training and practice, just to make sure that we don't look like Koreans or Italians."

There's no mistaking who these Canadians are. It's now time for the competition.

ALISON_KORN@HOTMAIL.COM


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