Kearns • Speedskater Simon Cho was so worried about the flood of allegations surrounding his embattled short-track coach that he fled to France over the summer, to train somewhere away from all the chaos.
He’s back now, for the U.S. Short-Track Championships that began Thursday at the Utah Olympic Oval — and he’s not having very much fun.
“Even in the heat box,” he said, “you can kind of feel that tension between skaters.”
The 20-year-old Olympian has been at the center of the controversy swirling around coach Jae Su Chun, who has been suspended by U.S. Speedskating as it investigates charges of abuse by a dozen skaters, who want him and assistant Jun Hyung Yeo out of their jobs.
Nine other skaters issued a statement defending the coach and blasting their accusing teammates, insisting they had never seen any abuse.
Against that stormy backdrop, all of the skaters have had to come together for the racing this weekend, as they try to earn places on the team that will compete at the first four World Cup events of the upcoming season.
“There is a lot of tension,” Olympian Jordan Malone said. “It’s making enemies of friends. It’s not a good thing, but the fact of the matter is, whatever you allow to happen will continue to happen.”
Malone is among the skaters who have accused Chun of abuse.
The complaints they have filed with U.S. Speedskating and the U.S. Olympic Committee include allegations that Cho acknowledged tampering with a Canadian rival’s skates at the world championships last year, at the behest of Chun.
But Cho declined to say whether that allegation is true, saying he will address it during a news conference that he and his father have planned after the conclusion of racing Sunday.
Cho seemed to hint at what he might say, though, when he was asked whether he regrets coming forward with the information.
“I actually never came forward,” he said. “For now, they have all been allegations and rumors and just people pointing fingers.”
Cho also declined to say whether he believes Chun and Yeo should keep their jobs.
“That’s a question that U.S. Speedskating as an organization needs to answer for themselves,” Cho said. “They’re the ones that hired Jae Su, and I think it’s up to them to decide whether he should stay here as a coach or they should let him go.”
Does he trust that the federation will make the right decision?
“We’ll see,” he said, after a long pause. “They don’t have a perfect track record of making the best decisions, but hopefully the athletes’ voices will be heard.”
Chun did not attend the preliminary time-trial races at the Oval on Thursday, but Yeo did, in his capacity as the acting national-team coach. U.S. Speedskating put him in charge while Chun is suspended because, according to a spokeswoman, there were “no specific claims made against him” in the series of complaints filed by the skaters.
But in amended allegations filed by the attorney for the skaters, Yeo was charged with going along with Chun’s alleged abuse and failing to stop it. The amended allegations — part of attorney Edward Williams’ demand for arbitration, whose official number of plaintiffs is now 12 — also include greater detail about which skaters Chun allegedly abused.
• Jeff Simon was the athlete upon whom Chun allegedly dumped a bottle of water, and at whom Chun allegedly threw a notebook. Simon also was allegedly forced to practice while suffering from back pain later diagnosed as fractured vertebrae, according to a Taylorsville Police Department report that was part of the filing.
• Charles Ryan Leveille was the athlete whom Chun allegedly slammed into a wall and banned from a team dinner for “disrespecting him.” Leveille is a former skater who is not part of the complaints.
• Two-time Olympic medalist Katherine Reutter, who is not competing this weekend while she recovers from double-hip surgery, was the athlete whom Chun allegedly called a “fat cow.” Reutter has not publicly taken sides for or against Chun.
The federation is awaiting the results of an investigation being conducted by the international law firm White & Case, and an arbitration hearing is set for Oct. 8 in Salt Lake City if the case isn’t resolved by then.
After racing on Thursday, skaters who have backed the coach generally played down the conflict within their ranks. Both Olympians Lana Gehring and Kimberly Derrick, for example, said they felt most skaters were focused on the races.
“I haven’t let it bother me,” Derrick said. “I know what I’m here for, and it’s not going to change no matter what the outcome is.”
The skaters who have complained about Chun, however, tended to be more outspoken.
Malone, for example, acknowledged that the scandal is going to make the sport suffer in the short term. He said skaters gave Chun the chance to change his behavior before they formally complained, but he ignored them.
Malone also hinted darkly that there is more to be revealed if U.S. Speedskating doesn’t act and the case goes to arbitration.
“The guy’s got so many more skeletons in his closet than what are out there right now,” he said. “And we don’t want it to go any further. We don’t want to ruin anybody else’s career. We don’t want anything bad to happen. We just want what’s right to happen. We deserve a fair and safe environment to be in, and one with a federation that cares more about the safety of its skaters than the medal count. That’s what we’re pushing for.”
U.S. Short-Track Championships
P Utah Olympic Oval, Kearns, Thursday- Sunday