US Disappointment Continues in Short-Track Speedskating, No End in Sight

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2014

USA Today

Since Apolo Ohno's retirement, not much has gone right for the American short-track speedskating team. 

In Sochi, things certainly haven't gotten any better. 

On Saturday, the U.S. short-track woes continued when the best male skater, J.R. Celski, crashed in his quarterfinal heat in the 1,000 meters and failed to advance. The best female hopes, Emily Scott and Jessica Smith, also failed to make an impact.

Celski, who won a bronze medal in Vancouver, finished in fourth place in the 1,500-meter race last Monday, which was considered his best shot for a medal.

Scott made it into the 1,500-meter final on Saturday due to an automatic advancement for being bumped in her semifinal heat, but she was taken out by a crash in the final and finished well behind the leaders in fifth place. Smith didn't even make it that far.

Scott's fall during the 1,500-meter final.
Scott's fall during the 1,500-meter final.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Celski, who many hoped would be Ohno's successor, refused to speak to the media after his latest disappointment, but Scott tried to sum things up. "I mean, it's unfortunate," she told reporters, including Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today. "But I think that's kind of why some of us chose this sport. It's the unknown."

Short-track speedskating is indeed known for unpredictability, as Scott reflected, but for a U.S. program that has been mired in controversy since the Vancouver Games, time is running out to salvage the Sochi experience.

Things didn't always look this bleak. Back in 2011, 19-year-old Simon Cho won the World Championships in the 500 meters and looked poised to be the future of the sport. However, you won't find Cho in Sochi.

Simon Cho back in happier times.
Simon Cho back in happier times.JENS MEYER/Associated Press

That's because in 2013, Cho was suspended from short-track speedskating for two years after being found guilty of tampering with rival skater Oliver Jean's skate during the World Team Championships in 2011. 

Receiving the ban along with Cho was national team head coach Jae Su Chun, who reportedly ordered the tampering. Many skaters in the federation were relieved to see Chun gone, as he had been accused of mental, physical and emotional abuse by multiple members of the team.

Shortly thereafter, the national team splintered into different groups. Some skaters went off on their own, unhappy with the way the governing body of their sport was handling the short-track program from top to bottom.

Other athletes decided to follow Chun. One of those athletes was Smith, the top female U.S. short-track skater heading into Sochi. The 30-year-old had made a lot of progress under Chun's tutelage, and she wasn't about to let a scandal offset her hard work. The logistics of the decision weren't simple, though.

Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News reported on the arrangement:

Chun may have been stripped of his Team USA position, but nobody could stop him from earning a living as a private coach. Smith hired him to stay on with her, and spent thousands in the process. When Smith swept the Trials, Chun was in the stands cheering, making his way down to rinkside to high-five her on her performance.

While Smith and a few other short-track athletes remained with Chun on a private basis, others, including Scott, ended up coming back to the national team to prepare for Sochi. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Speedskating's financials throughout this time were an absolute mess, leaving the leaders of the sport struggling to support the athletes that remained with the team.

Additionally, two former U.S. female short-track speedskaters came forward last year and accused former U.S. Speedskating President Andy Gabel of sexually abusing them when they were only 15 years old.

The allegations are still unresolved, though Gabel has admitted in an AP article (via that he "made mistakes." 

Reutter and Ohno at the Vancouver Games.
Reutter and Ohno at the Vancouver Games.Larry French/Getty Images

Despite all of the behind-the-scenes drama, rock bottom for the U.S. short-track team likely came when Ohno made it official that he was retiring and Katherine Reutter, who won two medals in Vancouver, announced her early retirement due to injury at the age of 24.

While winning cures everything, losing just exacerbates it. In Sochi, there's been no winning for the short-track athletes, and there's very little hope for any in the future.

Smith took a bad fall in a short-track race in Sochi.
Smith took a bad fall in a short-track race in Sochi.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The ladies still have their 1,000-meter race remaining, while the men have the 500 meters. However, after the disappointing showings so far from top contenders Smith and Celski, there is minimal reason to be optimistic for a medal in either event.

The best chance for a U.S. medal will come in the men's 5,000-meter relay on the final Friday of the Games. The men were taken out by a crash and finished fourth in their semifinal. However, the officials ruled that they were interfered with, and they received an advancement to the final. It was a rare moment of victory and relief for the team amongst the drama and disappointment.

In Vancouver, the short-track speedskating team was a highlight for the United States. Now in Sochi, it's a reminder of how fleeting success can be and how quickly the mighty can fall.

Whether they win a surprise medal in the last few events or not, short-track speedskating in the U.S. has a lot of work to do.