KEARNS — Lana Gehring was so discouraged and drained, she decided to skip the fourth World Cup of the season in early December to seek help and guidance from the coach who was at the center of a controversy that fractured the U.S. Short Track Speedskating Team.
"The whole entire drama of this season, just mentally and physically, it tore me down," said Gehring, who dominated the second day of the U.S. Short Track Speedskating Championships in Kearns with a win in the 500 meters and the 1500 meters, essentially securing her spot on the World Cup and World Championship teams.
Gehring said her success Friday, after a season of struggling, is evidence of how effective former U.S. head coach Jae Su Chun's methods really are.
"I need that coach to literally give me direction, to make me my best," she said. "I think he does that. I think me being back with him is proof of that."
In early fall, Chun was suspended when a group of U.S. athletes accused him and his assistants of physical, emotional and mental abuse. An investigation by a New York law firm eventually found no evidence to support the allegations. But Chun resigned and was banned by U.S. Speedskating for not reporting an incident in which Olympian Simon Cho admitted to bending the skate of a Canadian competitor at the world championships.
Cho said Chun badgered him until he complied with the request, an allegation Chun has denied. But both Chun and his assistant, Jun Hyung Yeo, admitted that once they found out about the tampering, they failed to report it. U.S. Speedskating officials banned both men from coaching until after February 2014.
Cho is still being investigated by both U.S. Speedskating and the sport's international governing body, and he did not participate in this weekend's championships.
Friday's other dominant performance came from J.R. Celski, also a 2010 Olympian who trains with the FAST program made up of athletes who either alleged abuse by Chun or supported those who did. His view of Chun's methods may be different, but Celski echoed Gehring's sentiments that this season has been draining and difficult for most of the athletes.
"This year presented a lot of challenges to all of us American skaters," said Celski, who won both races despite struggling to recover from a severe concussion sustained in Japan two weeks ago. "I hope we get things figured out, and I think we're taking steps in that direction. I think the right people are being put in place."
He said it was difficult at the first trials afterward as there was tension between the factions and expectations that one group should outperform the other.
Now that Guy Thibault, a former Canadian Olympic skier and longtime coach, has been hired to lead the U.S. team, Celski hopes he will find a way to unite the factions before the world championships and next year's Olympic Games.
"We all know that we have a common goal," he said, "And the only way to accomplish it is to push each other and be supportive. I really hope we can push ourselves to be that team again."
Thibault, who moved to Utah in 2002 and never left, said he hopes to be able to work with the individual coaches and athletes to heal the team. He said he knows and respects the coaches involved and believes they understand what he needs to do as the U.S. team's head coach.
"I am hoping I have the respect of these guys," he said. "I'm not here to fight them. ... My job is not to force them, but to bring them together. I think we all want the same thing and that's to have the best skaters at the Olympics."
Logistics will be interesting for the new coach, who is still more of an observer than a leader after being hired Dec. 4.
Celski and the FAST athletes train with their coaches at the Utah Olympic Oval. The U.S. National Team athletes train under an interim coach who will be replaced with Thibault next week at the Oval as well.
But Gehring now trains with five other U.S. athletes at Steiner Ice Rink under Chun's guidance (Salt Lake International Club). Chun is not allowed to attend any of the World Cups or national races, nor will he be allowed to coach her rink side at the Olympic Games should she make the team. Gehring said they are working on her skills and confidence so she needs less support on race day.
Regardless, Gehring said she's finally feeling motivated and back on track — literally — after a tumultuous and gut-wrenching fall. She's also not just skating for herself.
"I really want to win," she said. "Every time I go across the finish line, it's like he's winning. It's very emotional."
Gehring won the 1500 with a time of 2:27.944, while Emily Scott was second (2:28.087) and Jessica Smith was third (2:29.408). Celski won the men's 1500 with a time of 2:25.719, while Jeff Simon was second (2:25.930) and Travis Jayner third (2:26.281).
In the 500, Celski won in 41.365, followed by Chris Chreveling (41.934) and Eddy Alvarez (47.865).
Gehring won the women's 500 with a time of 44.992, followed by Alyson Dudek (44.539) and Jessica Smith (44.805).
The third day of competition resumes Saturday at 10:30 a.m. The races include the 1000 meter and 3000 meter. After the races, the U.S. champions will be crowned and the World Cup and World Championship teams will be announced.