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Blades of Glory? U.S. Speedskaters poised for post-scandal revival

Utah Olympic Oval FAST Team members skate during practice for the U.S. Single Distance Short Track Speedskating Championships, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012, in Kearns. Fourteen current members of the national team, including 2010 Olympic medalists Allison Baver, J.R. Celski, Travis Jayner and Jordan Malone, initially signed a grievance alleging they were abused verbally, physically and psychologically by head coach Jae Su Chun. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

By Michael C. Lewis

Special to The Tribune

First published Jan 18 2014 11:53AM
Updated Feb 3, 2014 11:30PM

Nothing delivered worldwide attention to U.S. Speedskating over the last four years like the coaching abuse allegations and skate-tampering scandal that turned athletes against each other, cost two coaches their jobs and left one Olympian suspended for two years.

But that might be about to change.

In spite of all the turmoil of the quadrennial — all the sordid accusations, all the embarrassing scandals, all the divided loyalties and hurt feelings — the federation based at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns is poised to enjoy one of its best performances ever at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.

The Americans have at least five of the best skaters in the world, and could challenge the record 11-medal haul they made at the 2002 Salt Lake Games — even without Apolo Anton Ohno, the nation’s most decorated Winter Olympian, and Katherine Reutter, a former world champion and two-time Olympic medalist.

"We’ve sat around the office and played with the numbers, and it could get exciting," said Ted Morris, the executive director at U.S. Speedskating. "But at the same time, we know that the rest of the world is going to be ready to go."

Ohno has retired to the commentary box with NBC Sports after three Olympics, and Reutter gave up the sport prematurely due to chronic injuries.

But a handful of remaining veterans are top medal threats.

Shani Davis is a two-time Olympic long-track champion and world-record holder, with Brian Hansen right on his heels. Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe are among the top-ranked women in the world. And J.R. Celski is a former world short-track champion and Olympic bronze medalist intent on picking up where Ohno — his boyhood idol — left off.

"I tried to resume his role and kind of take it over as best I could," Celski said. "I really wanted to step up and lead this team, because I knew I could."

In 2002, the Americans won eight long-track medals and three in short-track, and followed that with 10-medal hauls at the 2006 Turin Games in Italy and the 2010 Vancouver Games in Canada.

"We would be ecstatic to be able to maintain at that level," Morris said. "That would be a huge accomplishment. … If we came away with six we’d still be happy. So, six we’re happy. Ten, we’re ecstatic. More than that, we’re over the moon."

The moon might want to watch out.

In long track, Davis will be a favorite in his two best races, the 1,000 and 1,500 meters; he holds the world-record in both. Richardson could medal in three events — she will race the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 — while Bowe is a good bet to join her on the podium in two, including the 1,000, in which she holds the world record.

Celski, meanwhile, could medal in any number of the four short-track events, though that’s much harder to predict than long-track because of the capricious nature of the fast-and-furious sport.

"I’m happy that the level of competition in America has risen so high," Davis said. "It’s only going to make us stronger, and we’ll be able to go out as a team together and compete harder against the guys in the world."

The best-case scenario could deliver the Americans to the brink of their medal record with just their top four skaters. Throw in a few others who also could stand on the podium, and the record just might fall.

Hansen has been chasing Davis harder and harder, for example — and his best times in the 1,000 and 1,500 both rank in the top three in the world, suggesting the 2010 relay silver medalist could rival his fellow Illinois native in the medal count.

Both three-time Olympian Tucker Fredricks and two-timer Mitch Whitmore have a puncher’s chance in the 500, too, with top times that rank only hundredths of a second out of the top three.

Same with Jonathan Kuck in the 5,000, where he ranks seventh in the world, and short-tracker Jessica Smith, whose medal chances in three events improved with the news this week that four-time Olympic champion Wang Meng of China probably will miss the Olympics with a broken leg.

"We’re pretty strong and really happy and satisfied with the team we’ve built," long-track coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. "From a coach’s perspective, I think we’re taking one of our strongest teams to the Olympic Games."

That might have been hard to imagine just a couple of years ago, when the scandal erupted.

A dozen skaters accused then-national short-track coach Jae Su Chun of physical, verbal and mental abuse. Amid the allegations, skater Simon Cho admitted that he had tampered with the skate of a rival at the world championships, purportedly at the behest of Chun.

An investigation into the charges could not determine whether Chun actually ordered the sabotage, nor did it find any pattern of abuse.

Nevertheless, Chun and assistant coach Jun Hyung Yeo were suspended and later forced to resign because they admitted knowing about the sabotage but did not immediately report it to U.S. Speedskating.

Cho was suspended until October by the International Skating Union.

The federation scrambled to replace the coaches, and the athletes split into bitter factions.

The accusing skaters already had left the federation’s national racing program for another training club to avoid Chun, while others — including Smith — left the federation program after Chun resigned, in order to continue training under him at an independent skating club in Salt Lake City.

The atmosphere was tense.

Even the long-track skaters, not directly involved in the tumult, acknowledged feeling its grim tug because they were friends with so many of the short-trackers.

"It didn’t matter that it wasn’t about us," long-track distance skater Patrick Meek said. "It was about our organization and about our brothers and sisters on the short track side, and that’s hard to hear."

Just as bad, the federation was some $750,000 in debt, and saw one of its former presidents and most accomplished athletes, four-time Olympian Andy Gabel, accused of sexual abuse by two former underage skaters.

There has been no resolution to the federation’s investigation begun last year — Gabel apologized for "mistakes" during his career and resigned posts with the federation and the International Skating Union — but Morris said he expects a final report in the next couple of weeks.

In any case, the federation has started to turn things around.

It hired baseball executive and former speedskater Mike Plant to serve as president and overhaul its entire governance structure, giving athletes greater freedom and avoid meddling by its volunteer board, something widely viewed as one of the biggest problems over the years.

As a result, morale has slowly improved. Performances have flourished. And now, prospects for Sochi look positively golden.

"I think the tide has turned," Morris said. "It’s definitely safe to say that we feel very good about where we are."

In about six weeks, he might feel even better.

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