New president aims to get U.S. Speedskating back on track
By Michael C. Lewis
Special to The TribuneFirst published Mar 19 2013 12:37PM
Baseball executive and former speedskater Mike Plant has taken over as interim president of U.S. Speedskating, in the hopes of turning around the beleaguered federation in time to rescue its performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
The 53-year-old Plant officially took over on Monday night, in a move orchestrated by the U.S. Olympic Committee because of internal problems that have festered for months and, in some cases, years at the federation based in Kearns.
"My focus is on fixing things immediately," Plant said.
That’s because the federation is all but in shambles, amid a series of complaints and scandals during the past few months.
The short-track team has splintered into three factions because of abuse allegations, which forced out national team coach Jae Su Chun. The board is investigating sexual-abuse allegations against legendary skater Andy Gabel, a four-time Olympian and former U.S. Speedskating president.
A recent report by the Chicago Tribune also detailed ongoing problems in the federation, which included serious budget deficits and mistrust between management and athletes.
As a result, no Americans won medals at the recent world short-track championships, with the Olympics less than a year away.
"We have to move this sport forward," Plant said, "and we have to have reforms."
Plant said he wants to focus on changing how the federation is governed and how it allocates resources to athletes. He also wants to reform the federation’s contractual and code-of-conduct agreements with athletes — long a sore spot with many skaters.
"I don’t want to mislead anybody," he said. "There still is a definitive, finite amount of money. It’s no different from swimming. They don’t have unlimited resources. … But it shouldn’t be a system anymore where, ‘Hey, you’re either on the program or you get nothing.’ Our job is to field the best Olympic team with the best elite-level athletes and then make sure that we have a really sustained pipeline so we have a continuum of success."
Plant takes over the volunteer position from Tom Frank, whose term as president is scheduled to end after the Sochi Olympics.
The 14-member board of directors is expected to vote in May to have Plant serve the rest of Frank’s term, a federation spokeswoman said. It’s possible Plant will aim to reduce the size of the board, which is something he did as head of USA Cycling in the late 1990s, though he did not commit to that.
Although he was an elite speedskater — he made the 1980 Olympic team but did not compete at the Lake Placid Games — Plant has been away from the sport for years, which is something that could work in his favor with athletes who largely distrust speedskating’s relatively insular management community.
He’s married to legendary swimming star Mary T. Meagher and has been involved in the Olympic movement at various levels for three decades. He was on the board of directors for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and twice has been on the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He also was the chef de mission for the U.S. team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in Canada, in addition to his duties with the Atlanta Braves and a vast background in sports marketing and broadcasting.
"I work in the sports business, every day," he said. "So hopefully [athletes] can see I can bring that package."