a cool connection to the winter olympics

Olympic speedskater John-Henry Krueger and his mom, Heidi. Heidi is a professional ice skater and teaches skating at the Mt. Lebanon Ice Center.

Skate fast, turn left.

That’s the mantra of a sport that’s been called “right up America’s alley.”

OK, the person who said that about short track speedskating is Heidi Krueger, a figure skating staff pro at the Mt. Lebanon Ice Rink who is blissfully biased. Her son, 22-year-old John-Henry, will be the lone Western Pennsylvania representative for Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics next month in PyeongChang, South Korea.

But they do say skate fast, turn left, and John-Henry Krueger does both very well.

He will be skating in the three individual short track events, the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter races, plus almost assuredly the men’s relay, with his first day of competition February 10, a day after the Opening Ceremonies. He won at all three distances at the U.S. Olympic Trials in December.

“I’m skating very confident and balanced, and I feel the best that I’ve ever felt,” John-Henry said between workouts in the Netherlands, where he trains.

Before he goes to the Games he will meet his American teammates for a training camp in Japan, where they will fine-tune and acclimate to a time zone and altitude more similar to that of PyeongChang, which is 14 hours ahead of Pittsburgh.

John-Henry’s brother, Cole, four years older, also is short track speedskater. He lives and trains in Hungary and had an outside chance to represent that country in the Olympics but will now focus on training for 2022.

“This is the Olympic Games. I want to win.”

As Heidi noted, short track has a unique personality. For those who don’t know of eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno—or who only remember him from Dancing With the Stars—the following is a primer on the sport.

Unlike the speedskating on a large oval where skaters go two at a time and race primarily against the clock, short track is skated counterclockwise in groups around an oval small enough to fit inside a hockey rink.

The skaters tend to stay in a tight pack, maneuvering to pass each other on 17- to 18-inch sword-like blades at 30-35 mph and making tight turns. When there are wipeouts, they tend to be spectacular.

Heidi called it “crazed chaos,” and she has come to love it.

“It is fast-paced. It is intense. It’s over quickly,” she said of the qualities she thinks should make the sport appealing to Americans. “The variables and scenarios are just innumerable. There are fabulous rivalries. It is the original extreme sport. It’s rough and tumble. And on top of that, it’s strategic. It’s incredible. And if you ever see it live, you’re hooked.”

At that speed in such tight quarters and with those blades, the sport carries some risk, but Heidi—whose email address makes an abbreviated reference to loving her two skating sons—has come to terms with that.

“Yes, it is nerve-racking, and yes, there are spectacular falls, but I kind of put it in the back of my head, and I’m constantly praying for their safety,” she says. “It’s what they love. They would never stop. I guess I just need to be thankful that they didn’t fall in love with skydiving.”

John-Henry took to speedskating at a youngster, but he didn’t really have a choice of which type; there are no long track ovals within several hours of Pittsburgh.

“I think I would have preferred short track anyway because of my very competitive racing mentality,” he says.

Heidi and her husband, Bryan, are headed to South Korea. They now live in Peters Township, home-schooled their sons and raised them to be active in many sports.

Skating was a natural for them to try with Heidi, a 1981 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate who grew up on Inglewood Drive, working at the Lebo rink. Neither Cole, nor John-Henry a few years later, developed an interest in figure skating or hockey, but Cole was recruited by a local speedskating club and John-Henry eventually followed.

In fact, Heidi had to talk John-Henry’s way into workouts with the speedskaters when he was a little younger than most, around 5, because he insisted on that rather than the normal skating lessons.

“John-Henry in a group lesson was a difficult thing. It was like herding cats,” Heidi said. “All he wanted to do was be out on the speedskating sessions with big brother. He said, ‘I don’t want to point my toe and put my arm in front. I want with Cole.’”

Krueger is greeted by a young fan, Nina Civitarese, 13, who is a figure skater, inside the Mt. Lebanon Ice Center on Friday, Dec. 22. 2017. Krueger stopped by the Ice Center, where he used to train as a boy when he lived in Peters Township, to greet fans and sign autographs.

The sport has taken John-Henry around the world. He has lived in the Netherlands and South Korea at times. Short track has been a highly popular sport in South Korea for years.

“One special thing about this upcoming Olympics is that other than figure skating, I think short track will be the most popular event,” John-Henry said. “It will be getting lots of spotlight time.”

So will John-Henry, even if he is too modest to say so.

“John-Henry will land in an airport in the U.S. and nobody will know him. But if he lands in the airport in Korea, they know who he is,” says Heidi.

“Short track speed skating is South Korea’s NFL. It’s their national sport, without a doubt. And Korea is John-Henry’s favorite place on earth. He loves the people. He loves the food. He loves the culture. He loves the fact that they live, eat and breathe the sport that he lives, eats and breathes.”

Short track keeps getting more competitive. Heidi points out that the speeds Ohno reached in the 2002, ’06 and ’10 Games wouldn’t earn him medals anymore.

Making the ’18 Olympics is redemption for John-Henry. He came down with the flu just in time for the ’14 Olympic Trials and missed out on making that team.

“If I said that I had no pressure, that would be such a flat-out lie,” he says. “There’s definitely pressure. This is the Olympic Games. I want to win. Every athlete wants to win. But just wanting and dreaming isn’t enough. I have to do all the leg work. I have to make sure I’m taking care of myself and studying races so I know what to do under large amounts of pressure.”

Check back … We will be following Krueger’s progress in the Olympics. 

Photography by John Schisler