KEARNS — Simon Cho was so desperate to stay out of the controversy that fractured the U.S. speedskating team a few months ago that he left the country to train this summer.
When a group of skaters alleged that head U.S. speedskating head coach Jae Su Chun was verbally, physically and emotionally abusive, the athletes were forced to pick sides. Some defended Chun and his assistants, who are also accused, and some left to skate under other coaches. There were a few who tried to avoid taking a side.
Cho struck out on his own.
"To be honest, I've been trying to stay out of this entire thing," said Cho after competing in time trials at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns Thursday afternoon. "With the team being disbanded, I tried not to take a side."
In fact, he was so committed to staying out of the fray that he trained with the French national team until two weeks ago.
"After the first complaint was filed, I decided to move to France for the summer and train (beginning in June)," he said. "Some of the skaters decided to stay with Jae Su (Chun), some left, and I was basically stuck in the middle. In order to avoid that, I left the country to train for the summer."
But Cho was dragged into the controversy's epicenter when a demand for arbitration contained a shocking allegation against both him and Chun, who is now on administrative leave while an independent law firm investigates the allegations of abuse.
The arbitration filing said Cho allegedly told a teammate that Chun ordered him to tamper with the skates of a Canadian skater. The complaint says Cho told this teammate that he feared he would be kicked off the team if he didn't do as instructed and so he did so. The skater reportedly couldn't compete because of a mechanical issue, the filing said.
The arbitration document quotes Cho saying, "It was my darkest secret and I regret it."
On Thursday after competing, Cho declined to discuss the allegations of tampering with the skates until Sunday's press conference, but added, "I actually never came forward with that. For now, they've all been allegations and rumors and people just pointing fingers. At the press conference, I'll be shedding some light on that."
He said trying to earn a spot on the World Cup team has been stressful.
"People try not to talk about it," he said. "This is a pretty important competition so everybody is trying to stay focused … This is more negative energy, there is tension, even in the heat box, you can feel the tension and awkwardness among the skaters. It's kind of distracting before you go out and race."
Like the others, he said he is doing his best to focus only on skating fast and winning races.
"I wasn't off to a very good start," he said. "Mentally, I think I'm a little distracted."
He said after the races on Sunday, he will offer information about "what I've been going through for the last couple of weeks".
He said the fissures in the team have created a more contentious environment.
"The heat is going to be on with these pack-style racing for the next three days," he said. "It's going to be intense. I think (it's going to be more personal). To begin with, everybody wants to make the World Cup team. But now it's getting a little personal because the team is disbanded, and everybody wants to show, 'Hey, I've been working harder. I'm better than you.'"
While 14 athletes were part of the original complaint against Chun and his two assistants, only 12 are involved in the demand for arbitration. Nine other athletes issued a statement in support of Chun and his assistants and refuted the claims of abuse.
Chun denied the allegations in a written statement issued the day before he was put on leave. There is an independent investigation by a law firm but no timeline for the probe or a decision about the fate of the team's coaches.
Chun's assistant, who was also accused of abusive behavior and of not stopping Chun, Jun Hyung Yeo, was named interim head coach of the U.S. national team, but he is not working with all of the athletes vying for a spot on the Fall World Cup team this weekend.
Cho said he is working with Yeo, as he has for several years.
"Coach Yeo, he's the one who got me onto the Olympic team in 2010, so I've been working very closely with him, for right now, just as I always have."
He said he will leave the question of whether or not Chun should be fired to U.S. speedskating officials, even though he doesn't always have faith in their decisions.
"That's a question that U.S. speedskating as an organization needs to answer for themselves," he said. "They're the ones who hired Jae Su, and I think it's up to them to decide whether he should stay here as a coach, or if they should let him go … I think it's up to U.S. speedskating to take responsibility for that. I feel like for now, it's been all on the athletes. That's a little unfair."