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U.S. Olympic short track team finalized in nail-biting, unpredictable final day of trials

KEARNS — Jessica Kooreman slammed into the pads that surround the short track rink at the Utah Olympic Oval and immediately looked up to see the face of her coach.

“Linlin Sun was yelling at me to get to the line,” said Kooreman, who was the last skater to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic short track team Sunday afternoon at the Utah Olympic Park. “I knew I wasn’t in the wrong, so I wasn’t really sure what to think. … All I knew is I was going to get up and get to the line and know that I crossed third no matter what.” That moment defined the kind of fight the 34-year-old had to summon to make her second Olympic team at this weekend’s trials.

“I went to battle this whole week,” she said, her blue eyes shining with their usual determination. “I fought through everything that came my way, every challenge. This definitely challenged me going into the end of my career. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be over today or if it was going to be over after Korea. I am just glad I fought through mentally and stayed strong, and now I get to finish my career where I wanted.”

Kooreman was one of three women and five men who qualified to represent the U.S. in PyeongChang in February. In addition to Kooreman, Lana Gehring and Maame Biney, the team will include Olympic veteran J.R. Celski, the man who won every distance in the finals, John-Henry Krueger, Ryan Pivirotto, 20-year-old Thomas Hong and newcomer Aaron Tran.

Hong said he began to see the Olympics as a real possibility after the 2014 trials when he narrowly missed making the U.S. team.

“I think I surprised myself, and I surprised a lot of other people with my results back then,” he said. “I obviously didn’t make the team, but that’s when I first thought, ‘Oh, I can really make this the next go-round.’”

A native of South Korea, Hong said he’s thrilled at the idea of competing in the country where he’s lived several times and his father and many extended family members now reside.

“They’re very invested in this,” he said of his family in Korea.

Celski struggled much of the weekend, falling multiple times, including in the 1,000-meter final. He said he’d had equipment issues, and was just grateful to qualify in the 1,000 and 1,500 distances, as well as being part of the U.S. relay team.

“I am happy I got my spot for the Olympics,” he said. “And I’m excited to go race. I’m glad the weekend is done.”

The men’s relay team will not be the same group that set a world record and earned two World Cup medals, as Keith Carroll Jr., who was part of those relay accomplishments, didn’t make the Olympic team. U.S. coach Anthony Barthell said he’s not worried about trying to reconfigure the relay team, and the skaters said the chemistry between the athletes is very positive.

“We have a great team,” Barthell said. “This is probably the most stressful competition I have ever been a part of, even when I was a competitor. … But the team we are going with is an extremely strong team.” Krueger said he was pleased with his ability to race as well at trials as he has internationally.

“I was very happy about that,” he said.

Kooreman was the first woman to qualify for the 2014 Olympic team, so this experience was unique for the veteran.

“I felt mentally coming into this competition that I was prepared and ready,” she said. “It just didn’t go my way from the start. It’s definitely a mind-check, mentally and physically, everything. It wasn’t happy. But at the end of the day it is what it is, and there is a lot of racing, and I had to remind myself it’s not over until it’s over.”

She said that when she skated onto the ice in the second 1,000-meter semifinal, she knew what was on the line.

“I knew I was skating for my career at that point,” she said. “From that moment, once I got through that, it was like, ‘Just do what you do.’ And that’s race.”