U.S. short track may finally be on solid iceOrganization emerging from period of turmoil
When Mike Plant took over as president of U.S. Speedskating's board of directors in March in a volunteer position, he knew he was jumping into one of the most difficult situations in the organization's history.
A string of scandals and financial issues had turned the country's most decorated winter Olympic sports program into a publicly battered hornet's nest. "We got to a dark place," said Plant, who is executive vice president of the Atlanta Braves. "I feel like we're getting out of that dark place pretty quickly.
Speedskating has a great legacy, history and tradition. That's the backbone; that's the nucleus we can work from." Plant knows as much about the politics of sports as he does the business of athletics. A United States Olympic Committee (USOC) board member for eight years, Plant has worked for two decades in cycling, sitting on USA Cycling's board as well as serving as its president from 1995-2002.
He also was the United States' representative on the International Cycling Union (UCI) Management Committee. Two months after Plant took over as U.S. Speedskating president, executive director Mark Greenwald resigned, but not before he wished Plant luck in changing the status quo.
"There were a lot of doubters who said, 'This is the way we've done it forever'," Plant said. "I told the board, 'I'll do the blocking and tackling, but I need your support.
"I know this will not be easy. It's got to take resolve. I know not everyone will like it."
Nothing illustrated the need for change more than the white board at U.S.Speedskating headquarters outlining 36 pending complaints, grievances and code of conduct violations.
"That's dysfunctional," Plant said. "That's disrespectful. That doesn't say anything about how to deal with conflict resolution."
Immediately, he became the only one giving orders, the only one to answer to. In just a few months, he's begun to earn the trust and respect of many of the athletes who suffered most because of the turmoil.
"They went through and just demolished everything, and then rebuilt it," said Alyson Dudek, one of 14 athletes who filed a formal grievance last September. "I think that's what we really needed. We needed a clean start, something everyone was comfortable with."
The problems within U.S. Speedskating didn't begin with the issues raised by Dudek and those 13 others. But the formal grievance, which alleged verbal, physical and emotional abuse by then head short track coach Jae Su Chun and two of his assistants, began a series of very public investigations, events and public discussions that eventually led to Plant's decision to become U.S. Speedskating president.
"I spent 10 years on the USOC, and I didn't have an interest in doing that [again]," he said. "Then I saw some of the challenges that became public, and I said, 'Now I really don't have an interest in doing that.'"
It was only after reading article after article detailing the scandals that rocked the organization and splintered the team that Plant was persuaded to try and save a sport that made him an Olympian in 1980.
"This is a sport with an unbelievable legacy," he said. "We had individuals from this sport who'd had a global impact not just on the sport or the sports scene but on humanity. ... I saw all of that kind of being torn down very quickly."
The dysfunction within the organization became public when that formal grievance was filed last September. A separate grievance was filed by a former skater against Greenwald for mismanaging the organization.
After the grievances became public, Greenwald announced the organization had hired New York law firm Case and White to investigate the allegations of abuse.
At first, only Chun, who adamantly denied any kind of abuse and contested most of the facts through a spokesman, was suspended from his coaching duties. Speedskating officials left one of the two assistants accused of abuse in the grievance in charge of the deeply divided national team.
Within days, nine national team members issued a statement in support of Chun, including Jessica Smith and 2010 Olympian Lana Gehring. While they rallied around their embattled coaches, those who filed the grievances were upset that one of the accused was made interim coach -- and at the competition that decided which skaters would represent the U.S. in the fall World Cup season, no less.
The entire situation, especially Chun's, was complicated when short track skater Simon Cho, a member of the 2010 Olympic bronze-medal relay team, said Chun bullied him into bending the blade of a Canadian athlete's skate the day after that qualifying competition ended.
Cho was not involved in either the grievance or the statement of support, and said publicly that he deliberately tried to avoid getting involved. Chun vehemently denied Cho's allegations but later admitted that he knew what Cho had done and did not report him.
After that admission, Chun resigned his position with U.S. Speedskating and accepted a ban from coaching U.S. athletes in official World Cup-level events until after the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
As World Cup competition began, the investigation by White and Case was completed and satisfied no one. The investigation didn't find conclusive evidence of abuse but criticized Chun's coaching style and tactics. The report also was inconclusive as to whether Chun bullied Cho into sabotaging the Canadian skater. The ISU held a hearing on the incident in June, but no decision has been issued yet.
The report also seemed to allude to larger issues looming within the organization. As athletes began competing on the world cup circuit, the short track team was splintered into three groups: one which continued working with Chun at a separate facility in Salt Lake City; one which chose to work with new coaches put in place by U.S. Speedskating; and one, the majority, which chose to work with coaches from the Utah Olympic Oval, where U.S. Speedskating headquarters are housed.
When he took over in March, Plant said he'd never seen anything like it. Athletes who were supposed to be teammates couldn't even carry on a conversation.
"They were teammates, but they were treating each other like competitors," Plant said.
The scandals didn't end with the allegations against Chun and the admission of Cho. In February, former Olympian Bridie Farrell made allegations of sexual misconduct against Andy Gabel, who served on the sport's international governing body, the ISU and the U.S. Speedskating Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
Gabel admitted an inappropriate relationship and resigned, only to have another female skater come forward with additional allegations against him. It came to light shortly thereafter that the organization had been running in the red for the past two years and the current deficit was nearly $750,000.
No one felt the impact of the problems more than the athletes.
"Last season was really kind of up and down," Dudek said. "The team was kind of torn. As the season went on, everyone started to accept what was happening."
Even those who weren't on the short track team suffered. Long track skater Patrick Meek is friends with short track standout Travis Jayner.
"I remember distinctly being overseas this past spring, and we were waking up every morning to a new news article about our organization," Meek said. "It didn't matter that it wasn't about us. It was about our organization and about our brothers and sisters on the short track side, and that's hard to hear."
It was the unknown that was most difficult to deal with, he said.
"When you're in a sports organization or a company, if there is uncertainty at the top, it trickles down," he said.
Stephen Gough took over as head U.S. short track coach in October, just before the first World Cup races.
"I can honestly say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into," he said. "It was the extent of the schism, bad blood, mistrust, the friction in a lot of little places. I didn't know the extent of that and how deep it ran."
The fallout of how the organization had operated created ill will, he said.
"It was very challenging last fall when I first arrived," he said. "I had a very positive experience working with almost all of the athletes, but there is still some bitterness at not being able to work with the coach of their choice, and of having that happen mid-season, the year before the Olympics."
Smith said losing Chun right as she embarked on that critical pre-Olympic year was "stressful."
"For me, there were a lot of technical differences in the coaching," she said. "Short track is a lot of technical skating, and getting different ideas is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it's a completely different philosophy, it's hard. And the Korean and Canadian philosophy is totally different."
She said losing the guidance she had under Chun was difficult because it was his coaching that had helped her become one of the country's best skaters.
"It was nothing personal about Stephen," she said. "It was just not the right time for an athlete preparing for the Olympics to switch coaches. This is a dream we've been preparing for for so long, and it just doesn't work like that."
It wasn't until she and some others were able to make arrangements to continue working with Chun and one of his assistants privately that she began to feel confident in her skating again.
Although it's created a massive financial burden for her, working outside the National Racing Program (NPR) has given her the stability she needs to progress.
"The consistency has been the biggest thing for me," she said. "I can focus on training without having to deal with any drama or chaos."
Support all of its athletes equally is something Plant says the organization is working toward.
"It's no longer, 'We're not giving you anything if you don't play in our sandbox'," Plant said. "I don't care what sandbox you play in. We're going to figure out what we can do to support you. Why? Because we think you can get on the podium."
Meek believes daily life in the organization is much improved, and he believes that will continue under the new leadership.
"Luckily, we have a guy like Mike Plant in charge now," Meek said. "He's taken over and pushed out some of these guys who weren't in it for the right reasons. ... To have someone like that take over, it creates a whole new certainty."
Meek and others said much of the way U.S. Speedskating does business has changed.
"Everything is more professional," he said. "There is an expectation that if you don't perform in a certain manner, then you're out. There is also more accountability, which we haven't seen before."
Plant is the first to acknowledge there are still problems to tackle -- including choosing a new executive director.
But he believes the worst is behind them.
After May's eventful board meeting, Plant told his staff, "Stop doubting me. We're going to start getting things done. Hold your head up -- you work for one of the greatest organizations in sports. I know you're beaten up, but this is a new day. We're transforming this organization this weekend for the better. You're now going to do what you need to do. ... You said you weren't successful because you're not empowered and were encumbered; now you make all the decisions, and you'll be held accountable."
Plant, Gough and athletes inside and outside the NPR all want the same thing: success at the 2014 Olympics. And regardless of how they feel about the organization, the athletes believe they will be able to set aside any differences and compete as a team for the country they all love.
"As hard as it was, I think people learned a lot of lessons," Jayner said. "I'm really proud of my teammates for the level they performed at anyway."
Gough believes team success is possible.
"It's a work in progress," he said. "The reality is, we're going to have the selections and we'll see who makes the team. But let's not have some misguided expectations over what we're supposed to function like. We're not all supposed to be best friends and buddies. There is going to be friction. Training in a team setting, in an individual sport, there is something dynamic, and if we can harness it, it could make something really great happen."
Jayner said the energy and emotion of this season is already better. Last year, especially at international events, the athletes felt like they were under a microscope.
"I felt like people were watching us, analyzing us," he said. "And I'm really proud of how people came together anyway."
At the end of the day, everyone is skating for one common cause.
"Any time you put on the American jersey, you feel like a team," he said. "There are no hard feelings; it's business. ... No one is impeding anyone from training, and I think the organization has taken a lot of strides in the right direction to support the athletes and to improve the environment."