U.S. short track speed skating team in transition mode
J.R. Celski top skater on squad hit by retirements, scandal
There's no more Apolo Anton Ohno. Olympic medalist Katherine Reutter is retired, too. Without its two biggest short-track speedskating stars, the United States is in rebuilding mode barely a month before the Sochi Games.
The team led by Ohno and Reutter at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics won six medals. This time around, the U.S. men figure to contend for medals, while their female counterparts lack the necessary depth to get on the podium.
The Olympic trials that begin Thursday and run through Sunday at the Utah Olympic Oval will determine the five men and three women who will make up the U.S. short track team in Sochi.
Ohno, the most decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history, quietly retired and will be working as a commentator on his old sport for NBC Sports in Sochi. Reutter was forced to retire because of injuries last year at 24.
Stephen Gough, appointed last August to coach the short track national team, had suspected Ohno was done after Vancouver, but he was surprised at Reutter's decision.
"That's a huge loss for the team," he said. "It's hard to replace someone like that."
Looking to pick up the slack will be J.R. Celski, who took time off after winning a pair of bronze medals in Vancouver. On the women's side, Lana Gehring, Emily Scott and Jessica Smith will vie for Olympic berths.
Bigger than the retirements of Ohno and Reutter, however, has been the scandal surrounding the short track team.
In fall 2012, head coach Jae Su Chun was accused by a dozen national team members of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. He also was alleged to have ordered speedskater Simon Cho to sabotage the skates of Canadian Olivier Jean.
Chun denied all allegations, and other members of the team came to his defense. The coach and his top assistant agreed to resign from the organization and accept a suspension through the Sochi Games, but the opposing factions struggled to come together. Cho is serving a two-year suspension by the International Skating Union through October. He won a relay bronze medal in Vancouver and an individual world championship in 2011.
"Ultimately, there was a big problem and it was a meltdown," Gough said. "We're trying to make the best of it right now on pretty short notice. There are bigger problems that need to be fixed, but this year the main focus is let's get some success at the games."
Thursday's events are the four-lap and nine-lap time trials. They serve to cut the fields to 16 men and 16 women for the rest of the meet. Skaters accumulate points that will count toward the other events.