One year ago, Eddy Alvarez was in Miami, in a funk, in a quandary and in agony.
His knees hurt, his heart ached.
His choice was to hang up his ice skates and his Olympic vision, or undergo knee surgery and reconstruct that vision from the debris of his shredded tendons.
Alvarez chose the path of certain pain and uncertain glory, which took him to the world short track speedskating championships in Hungary last month. He hopes it’s a step toward the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but he knows that in his slippery sport, crashes have a way of obliterating forward progress.
That’s short track, say athletes calloused by cold falls.
A year after couch confinement, Miami’s Alvarez was in the middle of the sport’s most rough-and-tumble race, the 5,000-meter relay. He was co-anchor with J.R. Celski on the U.S. team for 43 laps, eight exchanges.
“Instead of handing off a baton, you are pushing a partner multiple times,” Alvarez said. “There’s a lot of strategy, passing, bumping, jostling and people throwing arms and legs and trying to trip you. It’s an intense race.”
It’s the essence of short track, which combines elements of NASCAR, roller derby and sprinting on a 111-yard oval at an angle so extreme that skaters use a pivot glove to stay upright on blades that are the width of two fingernails. Then put the whole show on ice.
No wonder Alvarez decided not to retire.
“I’ve been on skates since age 5,” he said. “I didn’t want to go out with any regrets.”
The U.S. team’s performance at worlds has only given him more incentive. The Americans were knocked out in the semifinal round, failing to advance by one place, and Alvarez said his slip with six laps to go was one of the reasons for the disappointing finish.
“Another lesson for our young team,” said Alvarez, who was home last week for a break before he begins his offseason training program. “We had a lot of bad luck this season, and we hope that means things will turn the other way in the Olympic year.”
Inspired by J-Rod
After a remarkable comeback, Alvarez is on course to become the second Cuban-American from Miami to make a U.S. Winter Olympic team, following in the powerful strokes of Jennifer Rodriguez, the four-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist in long track. J-Rod also grew up as a champion in-line and roller skater, and was coached by Bob Manning.
“Not a day went by that Bob didn’t mention Jenny,” said Alvarez, who was known as Eddy the Jet when he used to perform in-line tricks for tourists on Ocean Drive. “She was a huge inspiration in my crossover to ice.”
Alvarez, 23, is less than a year away from the U.S. Olympic Trials. He’s part of a young group training in Salt Lake City and trying to fill the void left by Apolo Anton Ohno, who won eight Olympic medals and captivated Americans at his first Games in 2002. Ohno, 30, who became a Dancing With the Stars winner, is wavering on his retirement but time is running short.
Celski, friends with Alvarez since they were kids, is now the U.S. man to beat. Alvarez was ranked fourth on the team after January’s national meet, but moved up a spot prior to the world championships. The United States usually takes a team of four or five men to the Olympics, where they face stiff competition from the Koreans, Chinese, Canadians and Dutch.