Amid U.S. scandal, short track speedskating season begins
US Speedskating is trying to move past Simon Cho's skate-tampering incident
Apolo Ohno is vague about potential comeback, but he isn't ruling out the option
China's Wang Meng competes in first international competition since 2010
Following weeks of unwanted headlines regarding an admission of skate tampering and the resignation of US Speedskating's head coach, the international short-track speedskating season begins this weekend with the first World Cup stop in Calgary, Canada (men's and women's finals beginning Oct. 20 around 5 p.m. ET, streamed by CBC here).
Here are four storylines to watch...
State of the U.S. team
The American skaters are heading forward without a long-term coach following a skate-tampering controversy that has drawn worldwide headlines.
On what he said was an order from U.S. head coach Jae Su Chun, a polarizing figure in the sport, Simon Cho, a former world champion, admitted to tampering with a Canadian rival's skates at the 2011 World Team Championship. Chun has since denied he made the order but admitted he knew the tampering took place; he and his top assistant resigned on Oct. 11. Former Canadian skater and U.S. and Canada national team coach Stephen Gough will now serve as the interim U.S. coach for the first two World Cups in Calgary and Montreal. After that, it's uncertain what the U.S. will do with its coaching situation.
"I have no idea what US Speedskating is looking for, what their next step is," said Gough, a legal consultant in New York. "They've asked me to come in under a pretty difficult situation."
The current World Cup team, composed of the top finishers from September trials, is a mix of Vancouver 2010 veterans and skaters who hope to make their Olympic debuts in February 2014. The most recognizable name is J.R. Celski, who, you may remember, sliced his left leg open at the 2010 Olympic trials and received 60 stitches. He recovered to win two bronze medals at the Games five months later.
Celski, 22, took the 2010-11 season off and returned last year, only to have his comeback curtailed by breaking an ankle in a December three-skater crash. He is one of four men on the six-man U.S. team who normally train not under the national program, but with a group called FAST. Celski said the differences among the skaters -- some backed Chun before he resigned while others lodged complaints of Chun's physical and verbal abuse -- brought about better competition at trials.
"The team was kind of divided, not that there's any bad blood or anything like that," Celski said. "I think everybody understands that we're all going in this together as Team USA now."
The top woman at trials was Jessica Smith, a converted inline and long-track skater, who was an alternate for the 2010 Olympics. Smith was part of a group of nine skaters who publicly defended Chun.
Katherine Reutter, the top U.S. female skater when healthy, is not suiting up for the first two World Cup stops. The native of Champaign, Ill., is rehabbing a bulging disk in her back that flared up as she recovered from her third hip surgery. She hopes to return in December and compete in later World Cups.
"I know that I have something left in me, and I am determined to finish out my career the best that I can," said Reutter, 24. "I think I'm ready to move on after Sochi, but I definitely don't want to close any doors and say no way."
Worth noting is Cho failed to make the U.S. World Cup team at trials in late September. A lengthy ban is expected for the skater.
Will Apolo Ohno come back?
Apolo Ohno, still the most well-known speedskater in the U.S., was recently asked if he'd consider a run for a fourth Olympics during a chat with TeamUSA.org last week.
"I think it's always a possibility," said Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian and the most decorated short track speedskater of any nation with eight medals. "It's at the back of my mind, not the forefront. ... I miss it but we'll see when that gets closer. 2014 and 2018, they're both not out of the question."
Ohno also stayed non-committal in a phone interview with SI.com in between Dancing With the Stars practice sessions this week.
"There's definitely a possibility I'll be on the ice," he said. "I don't know what capacity, competing or playing another role. ... It's something I do think about on a weekly basis."
Asked when he would need to return to training if he became serious about 2014, he declined to set a deadline, joking that he really should have decided "eight months ago." If he returns, Ohno, 30, has already ruled out competing in short track's longest event, the 1,500 meters. He'd likely focus solely on the shortest race, the 500 meters. That would rule out Ohno matching the all-time winter Olympic medal record of 12 held by Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie.
"If I ever decide to come back, it would be far beyond about just medals," he said. "It would be far beyond the sport -- the lessons, the journey, the lessons it teaches me about myself. I love the struggle at the end of the day."
State of the world
Short track remains a velvet-rope club of four nations -- South Korea, China, Canada and the U.S. (though the Americans slipped a bit last season). While many in the sport speak to the maturation of European countries since the Vancouver Games, the results don't back it up. The big four nations above won 63 of 72 medals at the last two world championships and continue to dominate the World Cup standings.
South Korea is the head of the class, returning reigning World Cup season champions in the men's 1,000 and 1,500 meters and the women's 1,500 meters. What's scarier is a newcomer: Shim Suk Hee, a spectacled 15-year-old girl who swept the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters at the junior world championships in February, might be the best of them all.
China, long the leading women's nation, returns its outspoken superstar, Wang Meng (more on her below) to a squad that includes the reigning overall world champion.
All three individual Canadian medalists from the Vancouver Olympics are still active -- headlined by double gold medalist Charles Hamelin and Olivier Jean (whose skate was tampered with by Cho). They represent the top North American hopes of challenging the South Koreans. Fellow Canadians Marianne St-Gelais and Valerie Maltais will also be a factor, especially if Reutter is sidelined.
Welcome back, Wang Meng
While Ohno is undecided about Sochi, the most decorated Olympic female short track speedskater is back in the spotlight. Wang, who's won six Olympic medals -- including three golds in Vancouver -- returned from a 13-month suspension after reportedly punching a Chinese team official in a late-night drunken scuffle in August 2011. In the past, Wang was known as much for her dominance as her testy demeanor. She said she contemplated her actions in the year off and she's a changed person.
"I did not fall," Wang said, according to the Chinese Olympic Committee. "I'm back, and appearing in front of us all is a new, mature me."
Calgary marks Wang's first international competition since 2010. One short track expert said Wang looked about 70 percent in practice this past week, which, for her and her alone, might be enough to win races.