I want to be there with my team. I want to represent the U.S. in a positive light. And I want to win. —Speedskater Jeff Simon
KEARNS — Short track speedskating has not been kind to Jeff Simon.
The cruelties he's suffered, however, have not diminished, even a little, his passion for the sport.
In the last two and a half years, he was passed over for the Olympic team, suffered three broken vertebrae and was abandoned by the organization he thought he could rely on in his darkest our.
"I don't know what my coach was thinking at the time, but he fractured my back," said Simon after winning his first race since taking a year off to recover from back surgery on Friday at the Utah Olympic Oval. "The coach called me a liar. I tried getting help from (U.S. speedskating), medical treatment, but they wouldn't help me. They said, 'Tough luck.' So I lost everything. I lost my funding; I lost my position on the national team; I was lost again. I didn't know what I was going to do."
The 23-year-old Las Vegas native returned to his adopted hometown of Los Angeles and the same team of doctors who helped him recover from a broken back caused by a fall in the America Cup Final (in which a U.S. teammate was red carded) in March of 2010, "put me back together again," he said.
"I wanted to give this one more shot," said Simon, who won the 1500-meter race in a thrilling finish that included some contact between skaters that was not called by officials. "I want to go to Sochi (Russia, site of the 2014 Olympics). I want to be there with my team. I want to represent the U.S. in a positive light. And I want to win."
Simon crossed the finish line with a time of 2:20.377, less than a second ahead of Travis Jayner (2:20.411) and John-Henry Krueger (2:20.420). He let out a yell and said it was a most satisfying bit of vindication after several years of struggling mightily.
"To come back, to win that, and not being part of U.S. speedskating, not being part of this corrupt organization where they don't want to help the athletes," he said. "They are content wearing their Olympic jacket, saying, look at me, look how smug I am. That's not what this is about, not what the Olympics are about, not what the sport is about. The sport is about fair competition, the spirit of the sport, and who is the best. Winning that race, I just felt a dopamine rush. This sport is so intense and I loved it."
He said he definitely feels he has something to prove, but first and foremost, he wants to race consistently and safely. He said there is a lot of negative energy and some bad blood on the ice that he hopes officials not allow..
The short track skaters are competing for spots on the U.S. World Cup fall team, and making the team means more financial support, as well as access to competing against the world's best speedskaters. But while skaters are trying to win these critical races, the cloud of controversy created when 14 skaters accused U.S. head coach Jae Su Chun of physical, mental and emotional abuse in a complaint filed with U.S. Speedskating. An independent law firm is investigating and a demand for arbitration (involving 12 athletes) in the case is scheduled for Oct. 8. Nine skaters issued a statement of support for Chun and his assistants just a week before this national championship.
Simon said that while the complaint seems like a negative thing, he hopes it moves the organization in a more positive direction.
"I'm not going to lie," he said. "There are dark days when I think, 'Is this worth is?' I'm not happy. This environment is tearing us down; it's tearing me down. We're broke. We have nothing. We are barely scratching by. But the spirit of sport is what motivates me to go out there everyday and tried to be the best."
He is anxious for the investigation to conclude, but is skeptical about trusting U.S. speedskating.
"They really don't (have a good track record)," he said. "And that's unfortunate because all they have to do is talk to us (athletes). Let's figure this out. They want to win medals too. The U.S. Olympic Committee wants us to win. And that's what it's all about."
In the men's 500-meter race, Robert Lawrence won with a time of 42.377, with Eduardo Alvarez earning second with a time of 42.554. Chris Creveling, Thursday's fastest skater in the event, was disqualified for a crash that took JR Celski off his feet and into the barrier that surrounds the ice. Celski managed to get up and finish third with a time of 49.972.
Lana Gehring won the women's 1500-meter race with a time of 2:26.688, while Jessica Smith was second with a time of 2:26.807. Emily Scott was third (2:26.891).
Smith dominated the women's 500-meter competition for the second day in a row with a time of 44.965. Sarah Chen was second (45.723)and Gehring was third (46.011).
The competition continues Saturday, with qualifying races in the morning and actual races starting at 1:05 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.