Amy Donaldson: Can new coach Guy Thibault heal old wounds on U.S. Short Track Speedskating Team?

Published: Sunday, Dec. 23 2012 8:43 p.m. MST

Lana Gehring won the 1000 meter womens finals of the U.S. Speed Skating National Championships in Kearns Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

KEARNS — Normally a coach is stressed about strategy, worried about teaching technique and focused — almost exclusively — on finding ways to win.

Guy Thibault will not have it that easy.

The former Canadian Olympian and longtime coach and consultant takes over the U.S. short track speedskating head coaching duties at a time when the team doesn't even trust each other — let alone a guy they only know on paper. He inherits a team that is literally splintered into three factions — one of which practices at a separate facility from the other two.

There is no camaraderie, no unity. In essence, there is no team.

But Thibault believes he can change that, even as he acknowledges the reality of the situation.

"I don't expect us to be a team by this season," he said as he watched the skaters compete in this weekend's U.S. Championships. "But hopefully by next year. We have a lot to build on right now."

The controversy had been brewing for years, but it exploded in late August when 19 current and former athletes, including Olympians, filed complaints and grievances with U.S. Speedskating, accusing then-head coach Jae Su Chun and two of his assistants of physical, verbal and emotional abuse.

The allegations ranged from angry insults to physical altercations, and in one case, a police report was filed in which a skater alleged Chun hurt his back after he reported a back injury to the coach.

Chun denied the allegations, but U.S. Speedskating officials put him on administrative leave and then hired a New York law firm to investigate the claims. Shortly after Chun was suspended, seven other athletes, including bronze medalist Lana Gehring, issued a statement of support for the coach and his assistants.

The investigation began just a week before the short track team raced to qualify for a spot on the fall World Cup team, and as athletes battled for places on that squad, another former Olympian offered a bombshell that would cost Chun his job.

Simon Cho said he'd bent the blade of a Canadian skater during the world championships because Chun badgered and bullied him to do so. Chun adamantly denied it, but admitted that both he and his assistant found out afterward and failed to report it to authorities.

The coaches resigned and were banned from coaching (although they can and do still coach U.S. athletes privately) until February 2014. Cho is still being investigated for tampering and didn't make the World Cup team, nor did he participate in the U.S. Championships.

Through it all, the athletes held to their convictions — whether it was in support of Chun or against him. The fissures became cavernous.

Many athletes saw the problems as more insidious than an abusive coach. They saw U.S. Speedskating as an organization that didn't listen to the athletes they were supposed to be developing and supporting.

It was clear that it would take more than a change of coaches to heal the wounds of this team.

Needless to say, the fall World Cup was difficult for athletes who struggled to compete against the world's best skaters and to navigate the minefield that had become their team.

Gehring struggled so much that she skipped the season's fourth World Cup and reunited with Chun, who was coaching in Washington, D.C. She said her time with him helped her find her confidence, her focus and her drive.

He now coaches Gehring and Jessica Smith, as well as four other U.S. athletes as Salt Lake International. They train at Steiner Ice Rink in downtown Salt Lake City.

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