Amy Donaldson: Can new coach Guy Thibault heal old wounds on U.S. Short Track Speedskating Team?
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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.
Meanwhile, members of the FAST team make up the bulk of the newly formed World Cup and world championship squad, including newly crowned U.S. men's champion J.R. Celski. Three other men train with the FAST team, as well as two of the women. One other woman and two other men train with the national team and will now be coached directly by Thibault.
The problems facing Thibault are not just logistics, like how to get three factions together to practice a relay race. The problems are how to heal the wounds left by allegations that were never really put to rest.
The investigation couldn't prove the allegations were true, but the final report did cast Chun's methods in a negative light. The investigation left so much unsaid and undecided, that both sides still feel wounded.
World Cup skater Jeff Simon blames Chun for a devastating back injury that cost him another precious season, while Gehring claims Chun's methods are what helped her sweep this weekend's races.
While she wants to see her coach in the stands, those who felt abused by him are unsettled by his presence. Gehring said the situation is so sensitive she doesn't even dare use the word "push" in describing how he helps her become a better athlete.
But somehow Thibault believes he can overcome this situation riddled with distrust, hurt feelings and deep-seeded animosity.
Whether or not he can unite the three groups behind a common goal of U.S. skating success is the gold medal question.
When asked if the controversy almost kept him from applying for the job, he doesn't hesitate.
"Absolutely," he said. "In the last five or six years, U.S. Speedskating has had so much politics involved, and that's not me. I'm more with the athletes, helping them with the ice, not the bylaws."
He said he's had experience bringing people together. He believes he can do it again.
"I am hoping I have the respect of these guys," he said. "That's part of what made me apply."
Thibault has lived in Salt Lake City since the 2002 Olympic Games. His two children are now students at the University of Utah and he knows most of the people involved in U.S. Speedskating.
It was the athletes and their potential, as well as the lure of coaching again that convinced him to seek the job, in spite of the obstacles that now litter his path.
"I believe in the new direction that U.S. Speedskating is trying to go," he said. "There are really three teams here. The four or five athletes that Steve was working with (on the national team); the FAST program and the Salt Lake International group. I respect that they've been working with their coaches. I'm not here to fight them."
He said some of the issues the athletes faced were reason enough not to trust the national team. Under their private coaches, they had consistency, security and organization. Sadly, the national team hasn't always offered that same stability.
He promises that is changing, and said he's started simply by listening.
"My door is always open," he said.
He will seek compromises with each group in trying to find a way to train as a team — even if its just a couple of times a week. He believes that will happen because, despite their massive, maybe insurmountable differences, they do share one important common goal.
"I think we all want the same thing," he said. "We want the best skaters at the Olympics."
And they want them, all of them, wearing red, white and blue.
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