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U.S. Speedskating Finally Heading in Right Direction

The U.S. long track team got off to a strong start in the World Cup opener at Calgary last weekend

By PAUL NEWBERRY
|  Wednesday, Nov 13, 2013  |  Updated 8:20 AM PDT
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In this Dec. 21, 2012 file photo, JR Celski competes during the 500-meters final at the U.S. Short Track Speed Skating Championships, in Kearns, Utah. After all the lawsuits and scandals and infighting, the American speedskating program is finally on the same page. And, just in time for the Sochi Games.

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After all the lawsuits and scandals and infighting, the American speedskating program is finally heading in the right direction.

Just in time for the Sochi Olympics.

No one could've seen that coming a year ago.

"We're a small sport with an incredible Olympic legacy," said Ted Morris, who took over as U.S. Speedskating's executive director in September.

"We have to figure out a way to celebrate that together and move forward as one team. Ultimately, with all the stuff that's gone on, we really all have the same objective — to be highly successful at the international level and in the Olympic Games."

The U.S. long track team got off to a strong start in the World Cup opener at Calgary last weekend. Three-time Olympian Shani Davis took gold in the 1,000 meters and finished second in the 1,500. Heather Richardson dominated the women's 1,000, while Tucker Fredricks claimed victory in the 500.

Meanwhile, John-Henry Krueger took silver in the 1,500 at the short track World Cup in Turin, an Olympic qualifying event for Sochi. Earlier in the season, the U.S. men's relay won a World Cup event in China and claimed second at another in South Korea.

"We're feeling pretty good about ourselves," Morris said.

There haven't been many feel-good moments since the Vancouver Games, especially on the short track side. The country's most decorated Winter Olympian, Apolo Anton Ohno, called it a career. Another star from 2010, Katherine Reutter, was forced to retire at age 24 because of chronic injuries.

Some turnover is a part of any sport. More troubling were the financial woes, the organizational infighting, an ugly split in the national team, the allegations of physical and mental abuse against the short track head coach. Things got so bad, a group of skaters called for the U.S. Olympic Committee to take over the program.

Making matters worse, there were allegations of sexual abuse dating from the 1990s against one of the sport's most prominent figures, Andy Gabel, plus charges that one of the top U.S. short track skaters, 2010 bronze medalist Simon Cho, had sabotaged a rival's skates on orders from his coach. Cho was banned from the Sochi Games.

The long track team, meanwhile, had to replace one of its biggest stars, Chad Hedrick, who retired after winning five medals at the past two Olympics.

The U.S. seemed headed for a big flop in Sochi.

Now, there's plenty of optimism.

A big force behind the turnaround is Mike Plant, a teammate of Eric Heiden's in Lake Placid who agreed to take over as president of U.S. Speedskating (while still finding time, in his day job as a top executive with the Atlanta Braves, to spearhead the effort to land a new suburban stadium that will replace Turner Field in 2017).

Plant resisted at first, not wanting to get involved with an organization that had been through so much turmoil. Finally, he agreed to step in without pay — as long as he had the freedom to do what was necessary.

Quickly, he reorganized the governing structure, putting day-to-day power in the hands of the staff rather than a bickering membership.

He settled three dozen cases alleging code of conduct violations. He brought in Morris, who had plenty of experience raising funds for other Olympic sports, to bolster the financial picture.

"We needed to start with a clear, clean slate," Plant said in a recent interview.

There is still work to be done, and some of it will have to be put off until after the Olympics. But Morris credits Plant with bringing professionalism to the organization and having his back on various initiatives to bring in new sponsors. The outlook is still rather tenuous, but at least U.S. Speedskating won't have to rely on comedian Stephen Colbert to raise funds.

"These are my roots," Plant said. "I feel good about giving back."

On the ice, much of the attention is focused on Davis, who already has four Olympic medals — two gold, two silver — and remains one of the sport's bright stars at age 31.

On the women's side, keep an eye on Richardson, a former inline skater from North Carolina, and rapidly improving Brittany Bowe.

"Heather Richardson could be a real Olympic breakout star," Morris said. "Obviously, there's Shani. This is probably his last run. Hopefully that will be kind of a neat story, because he's done so much for the sport of speedskating."

Without Ohno and Reutter, medals might be more difficult to come by in short track — especially for the women. But Krueger, J.R. Celski and Miami native Eduardo Alvarez have all shown an ability to get on the podium, providing hope both individually and in the relay.

Morris estimates the U.S. team could win three to five long track medals, perhaps another two or three in short track.

That would be in keeping with the sport's history.

Despite perennial funding problems and little attention at home outside of the Olympics, the Americans have long been one of the world's strongest teams.

From Heiden, winner of a record five gold medals in at the 1980 Games, to Ohno, the charismatic short track skater who competed in three Olympics, the Americans have captured more of their Winter medals in speedskating than any other sport.

"Is the job finished? No," Plant said. "But this is well on the way to being an organization that is not just revered for its success on the field of play, but how it's governed."

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