Olympics / Sports

US Speedskating is getting its act together

In May, a bland hotel conference room near Salt Lake City was transformed into a sparkling wonderland with white drapes lining the walls, silver streamers as table centerpieces and sleek speedskating skin suits on display. The scene suggested the Grammys, not the annual awards dinner for US Speedskating.

"They don't normally do this," said Fred Benjamin, a Chicago attorney and board member. "This is pretty fancy."

Such spectacle can cheer people up after the U.S. Olympic Committee gets involved and foots the bill. All it needed was a scandal.

Short-track speedskaters head to Sochi, Russia, in February for the Winter Olympics barely a year after their sport and governing organization was mired in turmoil amid charges of skate tampering and skaters boycotting the national racing program. U.S. speedskaters have captured 85 Olympic medals, and the hope is skaters can put the recent past behind them to come together as a team.

"Something went wrong here," said Steve Gough, the U.S. national coach who came on in October 2012. "There was a meltdown, so we're trying to make the best of it right now on pretty short notice."

The USOC intervened after a Chicago Tribune investigation revealed in February that the sport for years was dysfunctional as internal strife, bickering among athletes and financial problems were rampant.

The next month, the USOC engineered a regime change, effectively installing Atlanta Braves executive and former USOC board member Mike Plant as president. During several months, he overhauled the organization's bylaws, replaced the beleaguered executive director and improved relations with frustrated skaters.

"We've made tremendous progress, and we're still moving forward," Plant said recently.

But adding pressure will be the absence of Apolo Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, and Champaign's Katherine Reutter, a silver medalist who retired last year at 24 because of injuries. And unresolved is an investigation into the charges by two women who accused Olympic medalist and Northbrook native Andy Gabel of improper relationships with them years ago.

Problems began to surface in fall 2012 when more than a dozen skaters refused to join the federation's training program and filed a grievance with a laundry list of allegations. Among the most explosive charges was that national team head coach Jae Su Chun mentally and physically abused his skaters and at one point ordered world champion Simon Cho to bend the blade of a competitor's skate.

A law firm US Speedskating hired found Chun failed to report the skate tampering, but it cleared him of the abuse allegations. He and Cho each received two-year bans from the International Skating Union.

With a nod toward improving its financial situation, the federation hired Ted Morris, formerly the top marketing official for the US Ski and Snowboard Association, as its new executive director. He replaced Mark Greenwald, a two-time Olympian from Park Ridge whose rocky three years at the helm included accusations he wasn't taking skaters' concerns seriously.

Plant resolved dozens of grievances brought against the federation, and he reached out to the frustrated athletes on issues ranging from financial support -- he told the Tribune he personally donated to help one skater -- to coaching situations. For example, he has said elite short-track skaters should be allowed to train wherever and with whom they want and receive support.

"We should be able to support them if they're getting up on the podium for us," Plant said.

That includes where Chun currently coaches, Salt Lake International, which is mostly funded by local sponsors and $800 monthly dues from a dozen or so skaters. Skaters loyal to him formed his operation after his exit, and it has become a polished unit with its own skin suits and team clothing.

"It's a good balance in the sport to have us," said Chris Weaver, a Salt Lake International coach and former federation employee. "We fill a niche."

He said relations with the federation have improved, even if they are measured in small ways such as responding to emails and including the skaters on the federation's website.

"The new group -- they've been pretty good," Weaver said, "(Morris) came down and shook hands with everyone within the first week. I think that's great. That's huge."

One Salt Lake skater the federation helped support is 30-year-old Jessica Smith, who will compete in Sochi. The U.S. women's team will be limited to three members instead of five because it failed to qualify a relay team. The women also did not medal in any World Cup races this season.

"I think everyone saw (that the allegations against Chun) took a toll on the team as a whole, and the results (showed it)," Smith said. "Finally, everybody realized that what's working for each person, that's what you need to do."

Emily Scott, one of the skaters involved in the initial grievance who later returned to the national team and will compete in Sochi, said the skaters have come together as best they can while training with different coaches.

"We wish the best for each other," she said. "The past year we have come a long way."

Gough said that once World Cup competition began in the fall, the skaters relaxed among themselves. He recalled during a break in competition in Shanghai that the skaters watched some of the races together on television in the locker room.

"It was a nice feeling," he said. "They're all good kids, they all want the same thing."

Olympic gold medalist Derek Parra, the program director at the Utah Olympic Oval where the federation has its offices, said working with US Speedskating is now a more collaborative process. He previously told the Tribune that dealing with the federation's employees was difficult, particularly when organizing competitions at the rink.

"They communicate with us," he said. "We aren't in the dark about things."

Despite the progress, there are unresolved issues -- including who will be coaching the short-track program.

Gough said he hasn't had a conversation with anyone about whether he will remain coach after the Olympics. He said the Games are the focus and other issues will be addressed later on.

Chun, who continues to coach at competitions from the stands, will have his suspension lifted in August.

"He's still coaching, showing up to races," said Jordan Malone, a 2010 Olympic bronze medalist who was among those who filed the grievance against Chun and will compete in Sochi. "He just needs to move along."

Plant oversaw the federation's first strategic plan, which includes benchmarks measuring progress. The organization just began the election of a new 10-member board, a drawn-out process that won't end until April.

The federation continues to struggle with getting alumni involved in events. For the Olympic trials, the federation invited former speedskaters to purchase a VIP package in a fundraising effort attempting to collaborate with skating alumni. How many bought the package?

"Hardly anybody," Plant said.

Meanwhile there has been no resolution to the allegations of the two female skaters against Gabel. Nearly a year ago, the federation hired the Chicago law firm of Sidney Austin to investigate and said the inquiry remains ongoing. Gabel told the Tribune he apologized for "mistakes" he made.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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