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.
Strategy is always shifting.
As pivotal a role as luck plays, it obviously isn't the only important factor. Jayner says that winning depends on the execution of a smart, well-thought-out game plan. He says that racing strategies not only vary race by race, but also skater by skater. "I have strengths, and the other guys on the ice all have strengths, so in a sense you're really just in a chess game, trying to outsmart them," Jayner says. "You're thinking, How can I optimize my strengths, while diminishing his?"
Part of what makes short track so exciting is that there is no one right way to skate a race. For instance, there are advantages to being at the front of the pack, but just as many for biding your time at the rear. "Being at the front, you're out of harm's way – but at the same time, you're breaking the wind, so it's close to 40 percent harder to lead the pack than it is to sit in the back," he says. It's a high-stakes game of cat and mouse on skates, which is why watching a heat unfurl is always tension filled.
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