Alone in an empty locker room, Simon Cho had only seconds to carry out what he believed was his coach’s order.
The short-track speedskater grabbed the closest skate he saw during a break at the world championships last year in Poland, knowing it belonged to a Canadian rival, and quickly bent it beyond repair with a tool usually used to fix skates.
“It was the biggest mistake of my life,” Cho said.
The 20-year-old, who grew up in suburban Baltimore and won a bronze medal in the relay at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics after living and training in Utah, confessed to and apologized for the sabotage at a press conference Friday at his attorney’s office in downtown Salt Lake City. The confession followed weeks of speculation stemming from abuse allegations leveled against national-team coach Jae Su Chun.
But just three hours later, U.S. Speedskating held a press conference of its own at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, where attorneys from international law firm White & Case said their seven-week investigation into the allegations could not determine whether Chun actually ordered the tampering.
They also found “no pattern” of physical or emotional abuse by Chun.
However, the investigators did say that Chun and assistant coach Jun Hyung Yeo admitted knowing about the tampering “immediately” and did not report it to U.S. Speedskating.
For that, the federation suspended Yeo — Chun already was on suspension during the investigation — and began a search for a coach to lead its team into upcoming World Cup races in Canada in two weeks.
It also prepared to begin further disciplinary proceedings against Cho, Chun and Yeo, which could result in severe sanctions, including dismissal.
Officials offered no timetable for that process, though, and declined several times to answer questions in more detail, citing an arbitrator’s ruling that they not release the full investigation.
An arbitration is scheduled Nov. 1, if the case is not resolved by then.
“We are shocked and disappointed by Simon’s actions,” federation spokeswoman Tamara Castellano said. “We do not, under any circumstance, support, condone or tolerate this kind of behavior.”
Even Cho would agree.
He knew what he was doing was wrong, he said, but also felt he simply could not deny his coach — a fellow native Korean who brought the weight of their shared Asian culture to bear for an act of sabotage that could ruin both of their careers.
Three times, Chun asked him to vandalize the skates, Cho said — twice in English and in the presence of a teammate, and the third time in Korean, when Cho was alone.
“When he spoke in Korean, I knew that he was very serious,” Cho said. “At this point, not only was he coming to me as my coach, but as my Korean elder. And in the Asian culture, when an elder asks you to do something, or makes a request, it’s very difficult to deny.”
And Cho did not deny it.
Cho said Chun “was angry and believed that the Canadians aided another team in order for us to be eliminated” from the relay competition. He wanted the Canadians punished, Cho said.
“The repetitiveness and aggressiveness of how he came at me was very intimidating,” Cho said. “I did feel threatened and intimidated.”
The Americans and Canadians shared a locker room at the arena, Cho said, and it was common for equipment to be left unsecured. That made it easy for Cho to tamper with the skates, which belonged to skater Olivier Jean.
Jean was not able to skate the relay final, leaving his Canadian teammates a man short and unable to contend for gold. They finished third.
The attorney for Chun, Russell Fericks, said the coach “still denies that he ever instructed such a weird and crazy thing to do.”
Still, Cho blamed Chun for almost everything in front of reporters and television cameras and even his father, saying the coach promised him that he would take responsibility if anybody ever discovered the sabotage.
Cho also said that Chun told him that following the order would help pave Cho’s path to the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, just 16 months away.
“He told me not to worry,” Cho said.
The sabotage came to light only because a dozen other skaters filed their complaints about Chun, and included the tampering allegations. Cho said fellow skater Jeff Simon, one of those who filed the complaints, was present when Chun asked them both in English to tamper with the skates.
Cho said he did not target Jean specifically — his skates were simply closest — but he did phone Jean to apologize on Thursday night.
“I told him that I just wanted to apologize to him and tell him that I have nothing but respect for him and I told him that I regret everything,” Cho said. “He sounded very understanding of my special circumstance, considering Jae Su was also Korean.”
Cho could be suspended or banned from the sport, but he still hopes to keep training and compete at the Sochi Games — though he made clear he wouldn’t train under Chun, with whom he said he has not spoken in weeks.
The last time they did speak, Cho said, Chun “even denied to me taking any involvement” in the tampering.
“I wouldn’t skate for Jae Su Chun,” Cho said.