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.
Luck is always a factor.
In long-track speedskating, where athletes compete for the best time rather than against each other for place, it's all about being the fastest. Short track is a bit more complicated, though, and strategy is as important as technical chops in deciding who takes home the gold. And because athletes frequently contact each other and can alter each other's game plan, they are more subject to chance, which plays a significant factor in every heat. "It's not always the fastest, strongest guys that win," Jayner says.
While the idea that dumb luck plays such a prominent role in short track would frustrate a lot of world-class athletes, it doesn't bother Jayner at all. To the contrary, he feels it's part of his sport's allure. "That's why short track is so amazing and insane all at the same time," he says. "There are so many different variables."
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