U.S. speedskating back on track after year of turmoil

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 21 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

Alyson Dudek won in the finals of the 500 mm during the U.S. Single Distance Short Track Championships in Kearns Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

KEARNS — Stephen Gough knew accepting the job of coaching the U.S. short-track speedskating team last October would be a difficult task.

Allegations of abuse against the program’s coaches and admissions of cheating by an Olympian, coupled with ongoing financial issues, splintered the national racing program into three factions.

Still, the magnitude of what the veteran coach encountered shocked him.

“I can honestly say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Gough said. “I would have to say the extent of the schism, bad blood, mistrust, the friction, in lots of little places for some of the athletes within the organization … all of the little places that it existed and how deep it ran.”

The chaos off the ice affected the athletes’ performance on the ice. For the first time since 2004, no U.S. short-track skater earned a medal at world championships.

“We got to a dark place,” said Mike Plant, who took over as president of U.S. Speedskating in March. “I feel like we’re getting out of that dark place pretty quickly.”

This weekend, the country’s best short-track athletes will compete in the U.S. single distance championships at the Utah Olympic Park. It will be the first opportunity to measure how much the changes off the ice will translate to success on the ice.

Some say the changes Plant instituted have already given the athletes hope.

“They went through and just demolished everything,” said Alyson Dudek, a member of the 2010 Olympic bronze medal relay team. “I think that’s what we really needed. We needed a clean start, something everyone was comfortable with.”

A year of turmoil

The schism really began years before 14 athletes brought most of the issues to a head when they filed a formal grievance alleging verbal, physical and emotional abuse by former U.S. short-track head coach Jae Su Chun and two of his assistants. Within days, Chun was placed on administrative leave, while one of his assistants was named the interim coach, and U.S. speedskating hired a New York law firm to investigate the claims.

The day after Chun was placed on leave, nine athletes, including Olympian Lana Gehring and alternate Jessica Smith, issued a letter of support for the coaches, who adamantly denied the allegations of abuse leveled at them.

All of this occurred within days of the first World Cup qualifying competitions, and while the athletes tried to focus on competition, it was clear emotions were raw on both sides.

The situation became much more complicated when the Monday after those races, a 2010 Olympian, Simon Cho, who wasn’t involved in either the grievance or the statement of support, admitted he’d bent the blade of a Canadian skater at the previous year’s world championships. He said he only did so after Chun badgered him to do so, an allegation Chun vehemently denied.

Chun and his assistant admitted they knew that Cho tampered with his opponent’s skate, but said they didn’t report it. Because of that, they both resigned their positions with U.S. Speedskating and are not allowed to coach in World Cups until after the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The report from the investigators, Case and White, left most involved dissatisfied. They didn’t find a pattern of abuse, but they also didn’t exonerate the coaches. The lengthy report also implied that there were issues with Chun’s style and also indicated problems with the way the organization dealt with problems.

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