What you might get if you mashed up roller derby and NASCAR, short-track speedskating is essentially a no-holds-barred international grudge match on ice. First launched into the mainstream during the 2002 Olympic Games thanks to Apolo Ohno's winning grin and soul patch – as well as a series of epic, TV-friendly crashes – short track now rivals figure skating for top audience draw. And for good reason: It's fast, aggressive, occasionally violent, and tension-filled to the end.
While Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympian of all time, recently hung up his skates in favor of the announcers booth, the United States team remains in good hands under the leadership of 2010 Team Captain Travis Jayner. Winner of two bronze medals in Vancouver, Jayner is particularly driven to make a statement at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He has been dominant on the World Cup circuit the past few years and is the only male short-track competitor to ever medal in all four of the Olympic distances.
"I've seen a lot of improvement over the last four years – I'm fitter than ever, stronger than ever, I think technically I'm skating better," Jayner says. "I think tactically I'm as sharp as I've been. So I'm looking forward to putting it all together now. My goal is to go there and win." Jayner recently took the time to speak with 'Men's Journal' about the intricacies of short track, what to watch for during the games, and why it's the most exciting Olympic sport on two feet.
It's the Olympics' most intense event.
Short-track speedskating was one of the hardest tickets to get at the last winter games in Vancouver, and for good reason: Nothing matches its combination of speed, intensity, and tension. Think of it as a round-robin–style roller derby tournament on ice.
Short-track races are, in a word, hectic. The eventual four-person medal round begins with a field of 32 skaters that is progressively whittled down during four-person heats. Every competitor knows that his or her medal chances are on the line every single time a foot is put to ice, and so the fight for position is a battle for survival from the get-go. Add to that the bumping, pushing, shoving, and struggles to overtake the lead at every turn, along with the fair chance of wiping out, and you have all the elements of high drama. "Short track is an incredible sport just based on the fact that you're not out there alone," says Jayner. "The fact that the focus is more on strategy and less on pure speed or time makes it the most exciting sport during the games."
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