Unafraid to follow her own path, Jessica Smith now has Olympic glory within her grasp

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 9:10 a.m. MST

Olympic speedskater Jessica Smith poses with her skates in Kearns Monday, Jan. 20, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

KEARNS — Jessica Smith huddled with the other women on the podium, trying to avoid the spray of celebratory champagne.

But their male teammates had no mercy, dousing the newly introduced Olympians with several bottles as family, friends and fans snapped pictures and cheered.

Soaked and smiling, the woman who swept the U.S. Olympic trials last month posed for pictures and exchanged hugs with her new short-track speedskating teammates. It was a moment she didn’t imagine was possible just 16 months ago. That’s when some of the same teammates with whom she now reveled accused the man she credits with her short-track success of verbal, emotional and physical abuse.

To them he was a villain, an impediment to their Olympic aspirations.

To her, he was a brilliant teacher, mentor and the key to her Olympic dreams.

They made accusations of abuse against then-head short-track coach Jae Su Chun as part of a grievance with U.S. Speedskating. Smith and a handful of others came to Chun’s defense.

“I knew his character,” Smith said. “He wasn’t abusive.”

Still, she wasn’t sure how to proceed. She felt it was too close to the Olympics to change coaches, especially since coaches from different countries often have vastly different approaches. As one of the older athletes, the 30-year-old also didn't feel like she had unlimited time to chase her dream.

But how could she continue to work with Chun when he was banned from coaching for the U.S. team?

She didn’t know it then, but the same grit and determination that first caught Chun’s attention in 2008 would be what helped the coach rise from the ashes of the scandal while keeping her own Olympic dream on track. Simply put, Smith was able to do what very few winter sports athletes can — make the U.S. Olympic team training outside of the sport's national team program.

Smith grew up in Melvindale, Mich., a small suburb of Detroit. She is the oldest of two children (by 14 years) raised by Reina, a barber, and Rick, a truck driver. If there was something going on, the petite Smith was in the middle of it.

“My mom had me in everything,” she said smiling. “I did tap, ballet, modeling, jazz, and then I played hockey,” she said. “I was a tomboy, but I slept in curlers.” Her mom eventually told her that if she wanted to continue competing in pageants, she had to wear knee pads because she was getting bruises and scabs on her knees from inline skating. Instead of wearing knee pads, Smith just gave up beauty pageants.

Her father was her first coach.

“He would go to work, go directly to the rink, coach our team, and then go back to work,” she said.

When she was 9, her dad couldn’t continue coaching, so she joined a team coached by a family friend, Rob Dunn. He was the only coach she ever skated for until she gave up a lucrative inline career to try to chase the Olympic glory that was unavailable in her sport. She watched other inline skaters make the transition and win Olympic medals — Apolo Anton Ohno, Jennifer Rodriguez and Chad Hedrick.

“For me it was a hard decision because I’ve never had to live away from home,” she said. “And, you know, it was like, do I want to move away from my family for this sport. I’m older now (21). I didn’t know what was possible there. I was making a living at inline skating, so financially, the money was an issue. How was I going to make it? How was I going to survive on no income?

She said she’d won every prize inline skating offered, including world championships.

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