Speedskating: Jessica Smith paves her own path to Sochi
By Christopher Kamrani
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jan 04 2014 05:24PM
Kearns • With her pass to Sochi safely tucked into her back pocket, Jessica Smith slowed her skates long enough to leap onto a padded wall and extend her right hand. The 30-year-old short-track speedskater wiggled on the pad and delivered a high-five she won’t soon forget.
On the receiving end was her coach, Jae Su Chun, who walked down from his seat in the bleachers to meet his top skater’s hand. He gave Smith a thumbs-up and a smile before disappearing back into the crowd.
"It’s nothing but pure coach and athlete," Smith said, "and this has been a long time coming."
That was Friday night after Smith won the women’s 1,500-meter Olympic qualifier. On Saturday afternoon, the Salt Lake City resident again flourished on the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval, winning the women’s 500-meter qualifier.
America’s best female speedskater is 2-for-2 heading into Sunday’s 1,000-meter event in the final day of the short-track qualifying event. But since September 2012, tumultuous times clouded over Smith and the short-track team.
A three-time World Championship medalist and 12-time World Cup medalist, Smith splintered off with Chun after the former U.S. short-track coach was ousted in lieu of allegations of mental, verbal and psychological abuse.
Skaters chose sides, and Smith chose to stay with Chun. She’s had to pay her own way in order to keep training with Chun — who declined comment — and his independent program based in Salt Lake City.
"It’s been a long, long process," Smith said, "and he’s been with me every step of the way, pushing me every step of the way, and it’s just been a dream come true, finally."
The dream was put on hold in late 2009 when she barely missed out on qualifying for the 2010 short-track team in Vancouver. It brewed in the back of her mind in recent years, and each time she toed the line she told herself it wouldn’t happen again.
Smith is certainly skating like it this weekend.
She’s dominated final races, winning three of the four Group A finals to clinch berths in both the 1,500- and 500-meter races in Sochi in February.
"She’s definitely really strong right now, and I’m happy for her," said skater Emily Scott, who qualified in the women’s 500 meter Saturday.
Following her win in the 500-meter event, Smith walked out from her cool-down session with a snack made by Chun’s wife. The last 18 months have been a trying time for several skaters. But Smith has figured it out. She’s gaining momentum at the right time, while also cheering on fellow skaters — no matter who they’re coached by — to join her in Sochi.
"It’s rewarding, for sure, to be on top and to be winning and be consistent — overall, it makes you feel a little more confident," she said. "I just feel like it helps better prepare me heading into the Games and knowing what I’m capable of and that I can stay focused and that I can go in the right direction."