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

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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. – Stephen Gough

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.

Also, Cho’s case was given to the sport’s international governing body, and after a June hearing, there is still no resolution or decision regarding Cho’s actions or allegations.

Dydek said the team struggled earlier but settled down near the end of the season, even though other issues continued to dog the organization.

Long-track skater Patrick Meek said the situation affected those outside the short-track program, as well.

“I remember distinctly being overseas this past spring, and we were waking up every morning to a new news article about our organization,” he said. “It didn’t matter that it wasn’t about us. It was about our organization and about our brothers and sisters on the short-track side, and that’s hard to hear.” It was the lack of clear resolutions that bothered athletes most.

“Whether you’re in a sports organization or a company, if there is uncertainty at the top, it trickles down,” he said. “Luckily we have a guy like Mike Plant in charge now. He’s taken over and pushed out some of these guys who weren’t in it for the right reasons.”

An instrument of change

Plant said it was the steady stream of scandal stories that changed his mind about wading into the mess.

“What hit home for me was it’s a sport with an unbelievable legacy,” he said, rattling off the names of Olympic icons who’ve gone on to impressive sports, business and humanitarian accomplishments. “I saw all of that kind of being torn down very quickly.”

So he took on the job with one requirement — he would be the board’s president. And almost immediately, he began making waves, telling advisory committees and board members that no one was allowed to give the staff direction anymore except him.

“We had teammates treating each other like competitors,” he said, noting it took him nine weeks to overhaul the organization. “I told (the staff and board), ‘I’ll do the blocking and tackling, but I need your support.’ It’s going to take some resolve and not everyone will like it. … I spoke to 60 people in that first week. I wanted to understand their experiences.”

The best illustration of the situation Plant inherited was what he saw on a whiteboard at the speedskating headquarters in Kearns.

“I saw 36 complaints, grievances and code of conduct violations,” Plant said. “That’s dysfunctional; that’s disrespectful.” The Atlanta Braves vice president, who has spent decades in volunteer administrative roles with USA cycling and the USOC, began dealing with the problems himself while making plans to overhaul the way the body operated. He streamlined the board and made the various committees advisory and not authoritative. Decisions, he said, should be made by staff hired for their expertise, and they, in turn, will be held accountable for those decisions.

In May, the board of directors adopted sweeping new bylaws, and shortly afterward, embattled executive director Mark Greenwald resigned. The changes were aimed at preventing the volunteer board members from interfering with the organization's daily operations.

Jayner and Dudek said the changes have given them hope.

“I think the board has gone a long way with their restructuring,” Jayner said. “I think athletes in the future will be much better off.”

But not all athletes see much impact from the changes, in part because they’re still somewhat separated from the national racing program.

Smith said the most difficult aspect of the way last year’s problems were handled was that she was suddenly without the coach who’d helped her find results in the sport she’d dedicated her life to since 2008.

“It was nothing personal with (Gough),” said Smith. “It was just to the right time for an athlete preparing for the Olympics to change coaches. It’s a dream we’ve been preparing for for so long. It doesn’t work like that. … All of a sudden you don’t have that eye you’re used to having. I think it affected me at the World Cups.”

Which is why Smith, Gehring and a handful of others formed Salt Lake International and hired Chun to be their coach. The athletes get a small stipend from the USOC if they qualify, but they must pay their own coach, pay for their own ice time and pay for any other costs associated with training.

It is a hardship, Smith said, but one she’s willing to endure to chase her Olympic dream.

“Last year was stressful, but mainly that’s because we weren’t able to train with the coaches who were helping us get results,” she said. “Consistency has been the biggest thing for us. … We focus on training and getting the base that I need for the summer leading into the season.”

Hope and healing

But regardless of which camp athletes found themselves, the skaters all said they tried to make the best of an impossible situation.

“For me personally, competing and training are very separate,” said Dudek. “I push all of that other stuff aside. This is my job, and I have to perform.”

Smith said the athletes all have the same goal — to represent the U.S. as best they can through sport.

“I think no matter what, all of the athletes are about getting the best results possible,” Smith said, “whatever it takes to get there. … I feel everybody is out for the same goal. We all go in the same direction — for gold.”

While the athletes are committed to working together, the atmosphere throughout the organization is said to be more healthy.

“Everything is more professional,” said Meek. “There is an expectation that if you don’t perform in a certain manner, then you’re out. There is also accountability, which we haven’t seen before.”

Gough said the reality is the athletes don’t have to be friends in order to be successful.

“It’s possible,” he said of whether or not the factions can form a cohesive team. “It is a work in progress. The reality is we’re going to have selections and we’ll see who makes the team. Let’s not have some misguided expectation over what we’re supposed to function like.”

Jayner sees the way athletes navigated last year’s chaos as testament to their toughness.

“The fact that I could get on the individual medal stand, and a lot of my teammates did the same thing,” he said, under last year’s pressure, under the scrutiny of last year, or sort of the clouds, if you can deal with this, then Sochi is going to be no problem.”

Jayner said the athletes are already coming together and believes they will continue to do so.

“I’m having a great summer,” he said. “I’m stronger than ever based on a lot of tests, and I know I’m not the only one.”

Dydek said athletes accepted the changes because they really didn’t have much choice.

“A lot of us kind of held our breath,” she said. “Things are so bad, we will accept the change, but we don’t know if its’ really for the better. We went through a lot of downs before we saw any time of improvement. This summer things have been a lot better.”

Plant is the first to admit there is a lot more work to be done. The board still has to choose a new executive director, which he expects will happen in late September.

“I believe our actions are louder than words,” Plant said. “I believe we’ve got things going in the right direction. Just be patient. … There is a lot more to do than I ever imagined.”

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