Peters Township speed skater slowed by swine flu at U.S. Olympic trials

OLYMPICS

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As night turned to morning in his Utah apartment, John-Henry Krueger knew he was past help. He told his older brother to go to bed so that Cole could get some rest before Saturday's races -- the ones they had been working toward for most of their lives.

John-Henry, 18, a speed skating savant from Peters Township, had been feeling nauseous for the first two days of the U.S. Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Trials in Kearns, Utah. He wondered if it was just nerves. He had finished fourth Thursday in both the 9-lap and 4-lap time trials, setting himself up well for the weekend. But Friday, he fell in each of his semifinal races in the 1,500-meter competition -- a disappointing result considering John-Henry was ranked No. 9 in the world in the event. He could have blamed his nausea, but he didn't. He fell first because he stepped on a block and later because he was skating on a stripped blade.

When he and Cole returned to their apartment with their parents, Bryan and Heidi, they were still in contention to qualify for the Sochi Winter Olympics, even after John-Henry's falls. But their optimism wouldn't last. The longest night of their family's life was about to begin.

John-Henry couldn't keep anything down. One trip to the toilet became five. By the end of the night, he had fallen asleep on the bathroom floor. Bryan Krueger found him there and carried him back to bed. Finally, the sun rose in Salt Lake City, and John-Henry could see a doctor. Only, the news somehow got worse.

An outbreak of swine flu had been sweeping through the region, and John-Henry clearly had been contaminated. He was highly contagious. The decision was made: He couldn't skate Saturday in the 500-meter event, couldn't risk injuring himself or his competitors, who also could be infected. He had worked 12 years, sacrificed some of his teenage years by moving to Utah to train, for what? But John-Henry Krueger tried to put a positive face on it. Maybe he could get better in time for today, pull off a miracle.

"When you think about your life's work," his mother said, "and putting all this time and energy into this one event, it's crushing. I was standing there when the doctor put the mask on him, and you just saw this little light in his eyes die, and that's hard ... really hard."

Heidi was crying Saturday talking about it. A professional figure skating instructor, she had raised her boys on the ice, and they had emerged with this unquenchable urge to represent their country in the sport they loved. She and Bryan were so proud, and you could hear it in her resolve about what still lied ahead.

"But he is a fighter," she said. "You don't do this sport unless you have some real spunk. You know, ultimately, this disappointment will make him stronger, because he will see how valuable every opportunity is. Every World Cup. Every final. Every Olympic qualifier. Every Olympic trial. It will mean more in the future because he saw how quickly it can just be taken away. He's trying to be really strong, but I can just tell you that inside, he's just melting. He's just absolutely heartbroken."

Those World Cups were the first clues as to just how good John-Henry could be. This year, he was instrumental in qualifying the U.S. team for the 5,000-meter relay in Sochi, guaranteeing that five skaters would be chosen for the team instead of just three. And he was widely expected to be among those five.

"All I have to say is it's the world that we live in today," John-Henry said. "Not everything goes picture perfect. It is extremely unlucky, and I am really upset, but also I'm trying not to be negative and just get better, so I can attempt to race tomorrow."

John-Henry fell to 12th Saturday in the overall classification standings. Cole is in ninth. J.R. Celski took first place for the second day in a row, followed by Eduardo Alvarez, who also qualified for Sochi.

The men's team has three spots open. The Krueger brothers would have to finish in at least third place in both 1,000-meter finals today to have a chance. If one brother did, and Celski and Alvarez were the top two, he would qualify for Sochi. But John-Henry being healthy enough to compete at all would be a major surprise.

"We have unbelievable faith," Heidi said, "that everything happens for a purpose and God has a purpose. It may be dark for right now, but the morning is going to come."


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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