Four years ago, 18-year-old John-Henry Krueger was a few races away from making his Olympic dreams come true.
Leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Krueger had earned a reputation as one of the U.S.’ rising short track stars. As a junior, Krueger won three medals at the 2012 World Junior Championships, then made his mark on the senior scene by helping the U.S. men make the podium in the relay event three times during the 2013-14 World Cup season. He also had a top-10 ranking in the 1500m to his credit.
The only thing standing between Krueger and the 2014 Sochi Olympics were the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I don’t want say I was automatically in,” Krueger told NBC Olympics. “But I had a very good chance of making the team.”
In the notoriously unpredictable sport of short track, skaters know that one slip on the ice can lead to a devastating crash or injury—and that’s something they prepare for. They know how to prevent collisions, and how to recover quickly when they do happen.
But there was no way to prepare for the diagnosis Krueger received during the 2014 U.S. Olympic Trials: swine flu.
He had skated decently on the first day of competition, but fell twice during the 1500m semifinals on the second day. He was still in contention for the Olympic team when the nausea he had chalked up to nerves started to intensify. That night, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Krueger became so ill that he fell asleep on the bathroom floor.
When he saw a doctor the next day, Krueger learned that not only was he infected with swine flu, but he was also highly contagious. He couldn’t risk skating in that day’s 500m race. His chances of making the 2014 Olympic team were gone.
Krueger called it the “biggest disappointment” of his life, unsurprisingly. After spending most of his childhood and teen years in pursuit of the Olympics, driving eight hours round-trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. for skating lessons and then moving to Salt Lake City at age 16 to join the U.S. national short track team, Krueger would have to wait another four years to become an Olympian.
“I had to recover in two ways,” he said. “It was physically from swine flu and then emotionally and mentally—knowing that I wasn’t going to participate in the Games when I had a very good chance.”
He said that emotionally recovering from swine flu “was harder than the physical recovery.”
Although his family, which includes an older brother who also competed at the 2014 U.S. Olympic Trials for short track but didn’t make the team, supported him, he said he found it easier to internalize his struggles.
“It was something I kind of felt like I had to bottle inside a little bit,” he said, “because it was a huge disappointment to my parents, and a huge disappointment to me. But I just didn’t want to throw it out in the air. I just wanted to focus as much as I could on the next Olympics even though it was four years away.”
When he returned to the World Cup circuit the season after the Sochi Olympics, he quickly showed that with swine flu behind him, he was ready to become one of the U.S.’ top short trackers.
At the Nov. 2014 World Cup competition in Salt Lake City, he won a gold in the 500m and bronze with the U.S. men in the 5000m relay. He made his first world championships team in 2015, and competed for the U.S. at the 2016 and 2017 Worlds as well.
Now, he feels like “a completely different person” than he was in 2014, he said. Not only does he have more maturity and experience than he did at 18 years old, but he also has a unique edge in having called the Olympic host country home for over a year.
In 2016, then-20-year-old Krueger decided to leave his training base in Salt Lake City for Seoul, South Korea. He trained with some of the world’s top short trackers in a country that loves and reveres the sport, and became immersed in South Korean culture: eating Korean food, learning about Korean pop culture and even learning to speak some Korean. Having that experience, he said, “motivates me so much more to race there” when the Olympics are held in PyeongChang.
Krueger decided to move again in 2017, this time to Heerenveen, Netherlands. While Heerenveen is best known for being a hotbed of Dutch long track speed skating talent, Krueger found a new home with a Dutch short track team. He described his training program in Korea as “one size fits all,” and in the Netherlands he found the flexibility he was looking for.
He didn’t find any resistance from the Dutch skaters or coaches to the idea of a foreigner joining their training ranks. “The Dutch are very open-minded to that,” he said. “They like learning from other countries. Every country has strengths and weaknesses. And people would say, ‘Oh, but, you’re learning their strengths and weaknesses too.’ I mean, it’s a two-way street for sure, but it’s more about getting stronger off of each other and learning from each other, for sure.”
Despite his world travels, Krueger still competes for the U.S. His older brother, Cole, also moved abroad in search of the right coaching but decided to represent Hungary, where he now lives and trains.
Krueger has picked up two World Cup medals this season, both in the men’s relay event. At August’s World Cup qualifier event, Krueger was the second-best overall skater behind three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski.
And last night, on the opening day of competition at the U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials for PyeongChang, Krueger was the picture of health when he crossed the finish line first in the 1500m #2 final—and clinched that long-awaited first Olympic berth.