A true house divided, the United States' short-track speedskating team launches its Olympic Trials this weekend looking to move beyond scandal, division and a void in leadership in advance of next month’s 2014 Sochi Games.
The Americans are coming off a disappointing showing at the 2013 World Championships, capturing only three medals, and are looking to heal from the resignation of their controversial coach, the suspension of one of their key skaters and the retirement of the longtime face of the sport, Apolo Anton Ohno.
As a result of the unrest and uncertainty, the American squad has been more horror on ice than a unified team as the three-day competition gets underway Friday night at the Utah Olympic Oval.
It concludes Sunday with the naming of the five men and three women that will compete in Russia beginning in just over four weeks from now.
Much of the team chaos has centered on the suspension and ultimate resignation of U.S. coach Jae Su Chun, who was accused of instructing a member of the U.S. team to tamper with the skates of a Canadian racer at the 2011 World Championships.
At the same time, the embattled coach was accused of physical and mental abuse by as many as 19 short-track racers in late 2012.
U.S. Speedskating investigated and found no direct evidence that Chun instructed skater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of his rival or of any mistreatment of team members, but the coach was suspended through the Sochi games and agreed to resign from his post.
Cho, who maintained that he acted under orders from Chun, was suspended for two years by the International Skating Union.
In the aftermath of the resignation and suspensions, a significant split was created between U.S. team members who supported the coach and those that wanted his ouster. The schism has gone well beyond a differing of opinion, as the two camps rarely practice together, have at times traveled separately and sparred through the media over the past year.
Some team members—including Jessica Smith, a favorite to make the women's team—have even continued to train with Chun to the tune of $1,000 a month in Utah, eschewing free training with the national team.
Additionally, Chun attends races on his own dime and skaters that have stuck with him actually go up into the stands to seek guidance and input.
Given the deep rift inside the team, the retirement of Ohno—although expected—has further darkened the future of a sport that the Americans have so often dominated.
Further complicating matters is the unexpected retirement of 2010 women’s standout Katherine Reutter, who hung up her skates at only 24 years of age because of injuries.
So it’s with that muddled, bleak backdrop that U.S Speedskating looks to identify its athletes that will compete in the 500-meter, 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter individual events at Sochi along with the team relay competition.
The Americans claimed six short-track medals at the successful 2010 Vancouver games—two silver and four bronze—but will be hard-pressed to duplicate that effort next month.
The men’s team will likely be led by J.R. Celski, who won two bronze medals in Vancouver four years ago. Meanwhile, Smith could very well be featured on the women’s squad. The identity of the four men and two women who will comprise the remainder of the team heading to Russia in February is, of course, the most interesting storyline to come out of this weekend.
What the team can accomplish once it arrives in Sochi, however, will be one of the most compelling U.S. stories to be told from these Winter Olympics.
Here’s a look at what you need to know as the action gets underway in Utah on Friday night.
The New Steward
In the wake of Chun’s resignation, Canadian Stephen Gough has taken on the task of rebuilding and hopefully reuniting the short-track team.
According to Matthew Futterman and Stu Woo of The Wall Street Journal, Gough brings a different style to the squad, favoring a more straight-skating posture compared to Chun's compact style. He is a 16-year coaching veteran who also represented his home nation at the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Gough was the coach of the 2010 Canadian Olympic short-track team.
J.R. Celski: With Ohno commentating for NBC in Sochi rather than skating, Celski will likely be the face of the men’s short-track team in February. The 23-year-old won a pair of bronze medals at the Vancouver Games, including in the 1,500-meter competition, and is a seven-time World Championship medalist.
Christopher Creveling: Creveling finished second to Celski in Thursday’s time trials, giving him a strong opportunity to make his first U.S. Olympic team. The Pennsylvania native is the 2013 national champion in the 1,000-meter event and finished second overall in the competition.
Cole Krueger: One of those skaters that has continued to train with Chun, Krueger is the 2013 national champion and a national record holder in the junior men’s 500 meters.
Jessica Smith: After just missing out on the 2010 Olympic team, Smith is nicely positioned to not only make her first Winter Games, but to be a key member of the U.S. squad. Smith is a three-time World Championships medalist and is the national record holder in the 500 meters.
Emily Scott: The Missouri native sits just behind Smith following Thursday’s time trials. Scott has earned top-five finishes at three national championships, including a second-place showing at the 2012 event.
Alyson Dudek: A member of the 2010 Olympic squad, Dudek earned a bronze medal as a part of the women’s 3000-meter relay team. The seven-time World Cup medalist finished third overall in the 2013 national championships after back-to-back second-place performances in 2011 and 2012.
Friday: Men’s and Women’s 1,500 meters, NBCSN 8 p.m. ET
Saturday: Men’s and Women’s 500 meters, NBCSN 4 p.m. ET
Sunday: Men’s and Women’s 1,000 meters, NBC 4 p.m. ET
Given the absolute chaos that has surrounded the team and the loss of Ohno and Reutter from its ranks, expectations are certainly going to be tempered for the U.S. short-track team no matter who skates their way onto the squad this weekend.
The discord among the skaters has already proven costly in advance of the Sochi Games. The U.S. women failed to qualify a team for the 3000-meter relay for the first time since short-track skating became an Olympic sport in 1992.
Whether or not the men's 5000-meter relay team can find success in Sochi will depend on the skaters' ability to communicate with one another during the games. If they can't, the U.S. will have a hard time medaling in that four-man competition.
With that said, it will be much easier to get the individual skaters to focus on their events and put aside the bickering that has been such a part of the past two years during the Sochi Games. One has to think the importance of competing for their country against the world’s best will be enough for those skaters to leave ill will behind.
Provided they make the team as expected, the best medal hopes will be pinned on the chests of Celski and Smith for the men’s and women’s teams, respectively.
Should they perform well, the United States could better its rather disappointing World Championships performance and bring home four or five medals in the process.