If you put me next to someone, I can outrace (them). But if you put me on the line by myself, I just can’t pull it together. I just like to compete I guess, race pass, all that. —Jessica Smith
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.
“I’d accomplished everything possible in inline skating,” she said. And at some point, just being able to win and make money wasn’t enough.
She wanted to compete for her country. She wanted to be an Olympian.
She moved to Utah in 2007 and skated in a program overseen by 2002 Olympic gold medalist Derek Parra.
“I wouldn’t say I was comfortable and felt good, but I would say I knew how to skate somewhat,” she said. “I wasn’t wobbling and holding onto the wall.”
The toughest part was going from being an elite level athlete to a beginner at 21.
“It was really humbling,” she said.
Then she moved to Milwaukee to try long track, but simply skating against a clock wasn’t Smith’s style.
“If you put me next to someone, I can outrace (them),” she said. “But if you put me on the line by myself, I just can’t pull it together. I just like to compete I guess, race pass, all that.”
So when she returned to Utah in 2008, she’d decided to focus on short track. She was self-conscious and clueless about strategy, but coach Chun saw something in her that told him this older-than-normal rookie could be special.
“Her eyes,” he said. “She’s very strong physically and mentally but looks always like there is something hungry about her.” Smith wasn’t just hungry, she was starving for Olympic success. She listened intently to Chun’s instruction and advice and she improved quickly. She was an alternate for the 2010 team, which was both encouraging and devastating.
Four more years of struggling to survive financially, living far from her family, training six to eight hours a day — it all seemed daunting.
But the lure of the Olympics is profound.
And Smith said she simply went to work everyday trying to improve. Chun called her one of the hardest-working skaters he’s ever coach.
She grins as he says this because she knows compliments only come from Chun when they’re earned. That’s the way Smith likes it. She’s a no-nonsense woman with an intensity that’s evident in any conversation.
When the allegations were made, Chun was put on administrative leave. U.S. Speedskating hired a law firm to investigate the allegations, which were made just before team selection races in 2012. The team was fractured into two camps and the tension was palpable. All of the athletes, regardless of which side of the issue they chose to be on, said the allegations and subsequent fallout made it difficult to accomplish anything on the ice. In part, because there was a lot more at play than just the allegations against Chun. U.S. Speedskating was in financial trouble, and allegations of sexual misconduct against former U.S. speedskating president and board member Andy Gabel stunned supporters.
Then, another bombshell cost Chun his job. During the investigation, another 2010 Olympian, Simon Cho, admitted to damaging the skate of a Canadian competitor during World Championships, but he said Chun insisted he do it. Other skaters, including those who wanted Chun fired, said they never heard the coach ask Cho to cheat.
Chun adamantly denied telling Cho to damage the competitor’s skate, but Chun admitted Cho did confess to him and his assistant later and the coach didn’t report it because he felt sorry for Cho. That admission, not the allegations of abuse, are what led to Chun’s resignation. U.S. Speedskating also banned him until March 2014 from coaching with the U.S. programs.
The report, which came out after his resignation, didn’t find any evidence of abuse. It did, however, indicate that U.S. Speedskating needed to be better managed, which may have led to a change in the top two positions in early 2013.
With a change in leadership, a re-write of the group’s bylaws and a commitment by the athletes to put the past behind them, the camaraderie almost feels normal again. They acknowledge that all the athletes had to choose their own path to success, and they’ve tried to respect each other despite their differences.
Smith said she didn’t know how she would continue to chase her Olympic dream without Chun’s guidance. And that led her and Lana Gehring to the home of Hoch and Jiseon Cho. They’d tried to help Chun with legal expenses and they were fond of Smith. Jiseon even calls her by a nickname “Oori ipooni” — which means our pretty one. It connotes love and adoration, and it would be that affection that led Jiseon to do what no one thought they could — start their own skating club.
The Chos said it’s been an emotional roller coaster, and they’ve tried desperately to stay out of the spotlight. But it is impossible to tell Smith’s story without talking about the Chos, and especially Jiseon.
Smith and Gehring sat in the Chos' living room and begged for their help. Hoch Cho said they were heartbroken for the athletes, as they were for Chun, but they didn’t believe they could do anything to help them.
The worst part of the evening came when the athletes walked, hopeless and dejected, down their driveway.
“We had a good cry,” Cho said. “But Jiseon said, ‘It can’t end this way.’ I didn’t think about it for 48 hours, and then she came back and said, ‘Well, I’ve called a couple of ice rinks, and here is the cost.’ ”
Every time Jiseon was told it was impossible, she found a way, even acquiring old short-track pads from Michigan.
“I’ve kind of been a tourist through all of this,” said Cho, who is not related to Simon Cho. “We didn’t want the last thing we remember about these people to be Jessica and Lana with tears in their eyes on our couch.”
Just as difficult as finding a place to practice short track was convincing Chun to stay in Utah and coach the group of skaters.
He admits she was stern with him, telling him that he needed to set aside his personal pain to help these athletes achieve the goals they’d worked so hard to attain. He said he eventually agreed because what Jiseon said “was true. And also, deep inside, I wanted to do it.”
For Chun, the situation was intimidating and fraught with problems.
He still lives with the stigma that comes from simply being accused of abuse. He said he is a shy person, and the language difference makes it easy to be misunderstood.
When Smith won the first 500 meter race of the U.S. Olympic trials in late December, she climbed on the pads and beckoned him from the stands. He said not only is it not his nature to run into the spotlight, but also, he is still suspended and he didn’t want it to look like he was ignoring the rules. He laughs and shakes his head as he tries to explain the complexity of the situation.
He was proud of her. He was grateful for her support. But he was also keenly aware that many of the skaters on the ice with her had accused him of abuse.
When he sees the other skaters, he said, he doesn’t feel angry.
“Kind of very, very hurt,” he said. “Also, I don’t know what to do, how to react. Do I say hi or nothing. Which is very, very uncomfortable as a coach.”
He said he tried to understand what he did that led to the allegations. There is clearly language and cultural issues at work, but those hurt by him say the allegations were much more serious than the coach simply having a rough demeanor. They said the environment was toxic and negative.
But it is clearly something different for Smith, Gehring and the other athletes who supported and followed him as he, with the help of the Cho family, formed Salt Lake International. They’ve had help and support from other community members, and the club is thriving.
Still, Chun said staying in Utah and coaching the teammates of those who felt wronged by him was one of the most difficult decisions he’s ever made.
“I’m really a person who is proud,” Chun said. “This made me feel ashamed. I thought my coaching life is done. I feel that. I don’t have the confidence to see the athletes again because it really shamed me. It hurt too much.”
Watching Smith win every race at the Olympic trials, however, wasn’t just a highlight for the skater. It was cathartic for the coach.
He has tried to hide in the shadows, be respectful and not say much, and always maintain a “poker face.” He’s avoided the media limelight, but he said that weekend he changed his mind.
“I will not avoid anymore,” he said.
To be honest, it wasn’t just watching Smith succeed. It was also knowing what the other Salt Lake International skaters went through during the trials, like John Henry Krueger, who had the flu on Friday but decided to compete on Sunday anyway. Chun was impressed with his grit, and while that was very painful to watch, he also said it gave him some clarity.
“When Jessica won the race, it was a big storm, then very quiet,” he said. “I will do everything for her at the Olympics, for her, to make it (possible) for her to win.”
Smith said she can’t win without a way to communicate with Chun during the Games. They’re working on raising money for Jessica’s fiancé, Michael Kooreman, a speedskater turned coach, and Chun to travel to Sochi. U.S. Speedskating is assisting Smith in finding a way for Kooreman to have as much contact with her as possible.
Chun knows he has to go as a spectator, but he said he and Kooreman work together and understand Smith, as well as their style and strategy. Smith knows some people might not understand her loyalty or her relationship with Chun.
For her, it’s very simple. Not only is he one of the world’s best short-track coaches, but he’s also one of the few people who understands and appreciates her competitive fire.
“He has the same mentality, the same goals that I have, and that’s to win,” Smith said. “He doesn’t like to be beat, just like I don’t like to be beat, and I think that’s why we make a good team.”
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