The Fast & The Furious

The Fast & The Furious

Short-track speedskating has taken off in Montgomery County. But even as some of the top young skaters are now coming out of this area, some of the sport's coaches have found themselves on thin ice.

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Shaner LeBauer lives to compete. He has been a champion ski racer and cyclist, but the ice is where the Winston Churchill High School senior is most at home. Bent forward at the waist, his upper torso nearly horizontal to the ice, arms tucked behind his back aerodynamically, Shaner swoops across the 111-meter frozen surface at Cabin John Ice Rink in his formfitting outfit, his long strides making him seem almost like an animal pursuing its prey.

But unlike so many teens on blades, it’s not pucks or triple axels that the Potomac resident pursues. It’s short-track speedskating medals.

“I’ve always been a competitive person,” says Shaner, who began skating just before his 10th birthday after watching American Apolo Ohno win short-track gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics. “No matter what I did, I had to be on top. Speedskating is the perfect outlet for that.”  

In March, Shaner won the all-around title in the 15-16 boys’ division at the National Age Group Short-Track Speedskating Championships in Omaha, Neb. Shaner, who turned 17 in May, isn’t even the top skater on his team at Potomac Speedskating. That would be 16-year-old Thomas Hong, a Laurel resident who has won six national titles and has an outside chance of skating at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February.

Five years after its inception, the Potomac Speedskating team, whose members train at Cabin John and at Wheaton Ice Arena, features a roster of accomplished athletes, including: Bethesda’s  TJ Vongkovit, a Landon School junior who will skate for Thailand in international competition this season; Potomac’s Yoni Subin, a Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School sophomore who will skate for Israel; Olney’s Peter Ho, a Montgomery Blair High School junior who won the bronze overall medal at the nationals last spring; and Bethesda’s Sophie Mittelstadt, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School junior who won overall gold at the America Cup competition in 2011.

Then there’s Rockville’s April Shin, a junior at Richard Montgomery in Rockville who competes for the equally elite Dominion Speedskating in Reston, Va., one of the other five clubs in the area. April recently earned a spot on the U.S. Junior World team and won first place overall in the 2013 American Cup Junior Women’s rankings.

The Bethesda area has become a bastion of the sport, with about 250 of the estimated 1,000 short-track speedskaters in the country based here, many of them looking for post-Ohno glory.

“Speedskating has grown very fast in the Washington area over the last five years,” Potomac Speedskating Vice President Alison Mittelstadt says during a spring practice at Cabin John.

Anyone wondering about the sport’s popularity need look no further than the rink: Short-track can be thrilling to watch. Distances are so short—1,500 meters is typically the longest event and finishes in less than three minutes—that competition can briefly resemble a NASCAR race, with top speedskaters flying around the ice at more than 25 mph. Contrast that with the Dancing with the Stars atmosphere of its figure skating cousin.

But if the sport can be beautiful in its grace and speed, it can be brutal, too. Coaches have been suspended for verbally and sometimes physically abusing their protégés, and the sport has been plagued by accusations of coaches and competitors tampering with rivals’ blades.

Shaner experienced the dark side of the sport before he was old enough to drive.

“There’s no question that Apolo was great for short track,” says Tamara Castellano, spokeswoman for US Speedskating, the sport’s governing body in this country. But Ohno, who is the most decorated American Winter Olympian, has had plenty of company on the podium. In 2010, every U.S. short-track skater came home from the Vancouver Olympics with a medal. And speedskating itself has garnered the most medals for the U.S.—85 in all—in the Winter Olympics since competition began in 1924.

The rapid growth in local short-track speedskating—cousin of the more established long-track version, which produced gold medal-winning  American Olympic legends Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair in the 1980s—dates to the 2007 arrival of several coaches from South Korea, the sport’s powerhouse. Chief among them was two-time overall world champion and Olympic gold-winner Kim Dong-Sung.

Americans first heard of Kim in 2002 when he appeared to have won gold in Salt Lake City before being disqualified for blocking Ohno, giving the American the first of his U.S.-record eight Winter Olympic medals.

In 2007, Kim became coach at the Wheaton Speedskating Club, which became Potomac Speedskating in 2008. But there were soon concerns about his physical and verbal treatment of the skaters.

In 2010, the parents at Potomac ousted him and he became coach at Dominion Speedskating in Reston. The following year, US Speedskating banned Kim from coaching for six years after seven young area skaters said they had witnessed or been victims of his physical abuse. Kim, who since has returned to South Korea, denied the allegations at the time.

Though the skaters weren’t named in the complaint, Shaner LeBauer says he was one of them.

“One day, another skater told me a joke and I laughed,” Shaner recalls. “Kim Dong-Sung thought I was laughing at another skater’s pain, so he pressure-pointed me in the same place at least twice as hard. I usually had the self-control to suck it up until he was done abusing me, but this was so excruciating that I fell to the floor while he was still grabbing onto my arm. I wrenched myself free, screamed that I was quitting and stormed out.”

Sophie Mittelstadt was there at the time. “He had us under this weird mindset that we were wimps if we complained,” she says. “People thought it was funny that Shaner was leaving. Now I look back on it and know that it wasn’t funny at all.”

Shaner’s mother, who was waiting with the other parents at the time, offered to talk with the coach. But Shaner simply returned instead. Not long after, he attended a four-day ski racing camp, which meant he had to miss skating practice. Like most coaches, Kim was in charge of his team’s skates. Shaner later discovered that his blades had been ruined.

At the 2010 nationals in Wausau, Wis., “I skated on them and I had no idea why I was struggling so much,” Shaner says. “I thought I was hopeless. After nationals, I had another skater check my blades, and he told me they were completely unusable. They were bent too much, which limits the lean. And at the two most crucial points under the cups that connect the blade to the boot, they were bent the wrong way.”

Even with mounting concerns, parents hesitated to take action. Some had come to the club specifically for their kids to train with Kim. Among them was Piyapong Vongkovit, an immigrant from Thailand who encouraged his then 7-year-old son, TJ, to start skating in North Carolina after witnessing Ohno’s triumphs. The Vongkovits soon were commuting to Maryland on weekends, and by 2008 they had moved to Bethesda so TJ could train with Kim.

“We gave [Kim] the benefit of every doubt on several occasions and capitulated to the wishes of the families in the club who tried to explain the cultural context,” Alison Mittelstadt says. They noted “that this was acceptable coaching in Korea and that we had to be a little bit more understanding that he would change and grow out of it.”

After Kim set up shop as DS Speedskating (which evolved into Dominion Speedskating) but before his U.S. ban, April Shin followed, sometimes spending up to four hours in traffic for the round trips from Rockville to Reston. She remains there today, working with coaches Byun Woook and Jae Su Chun. Given her family’s friendly relationship with Kim, she feels returning to Potomac could be awkward.

Chun, who began coaching the U.S. national team in 2007, sees Kim’s influence in April. She’s a strong, calm skater, he says. Kim “made the Washington, D.C., area into the best in the USA for speedskating,” Chun says. “…He tried really hard to improve his athletes, but he was pretty young [27 when he arrived]. I’m very different. How hard I push skaters depends on their character. Some cocky skaters need a strong coach, but weaker skaters need more [of a] soft coach.”

Like Kim, Chun has encountered problems as a coach. More than a dozen skaters claimed verbal, physical and psychological abuse in a formal complaint filed in 2012. He was cleared of those charges. But last October he lost his job coaching the national team after reportedly failing to report that Simon Cho, then a Laurel resident, had tampered with the blades of Canadian rival Olivier Jean before winning the 500-meter race at the 2011 world championships. Cho confessed to the tampering, but said he did so upon orders from Chun.

Today, Chun trains Olympic contenders at the Salt Lake International club, commuting between the D.C. area and Utah, and says he better understands American culture now.

Meanwhile, other Korean coaches in the area continue to attract skaters. Jihoon Chae, the 500-meter champion in the 1994 Olympics, eventually replaced Kim at Potomac. In the small world that is speed-
skating, Chae briefly trained Ohno in 2006. Chae has styled himself as a different kind of coach. When he skated, he says, he used to follow his coach’s directives without question. But “when I started to coach [in 2001], I wanted to explain to the skaters why we do things,” he says.

Chae has only been in the area for two years, but he can see why the area has become such a hotbed for his sport. “Washington is [the] No. 1 place for people who want to study hard,” Chae says. And people who study hard tend to compete hard.

Alison Mittelstadt couldn’t be happier that Chae is coaching at the club she co-founded.

“The fact that Jihoon Chae was an Olympic gold medalist was not a selling point,” she says. “It almost made me leery. That doesn’t make someone a great coach. [But] he has the whole package. He’s a student of the sport. He’s on the [International Skating Union’s] technical committee. He’s one of the people making the calls about rule changes, nuances in the sport, what the referees are looking for, what constitutes a penalty.”   

And perhaps most importantly, “he’s not an egomaniac.”

Regardless of a coach’s style, one requirement applies to any aspiring speedskater: You have to train hard. The sport is about power and athleticism. Because of that, Shaner spends six days a week at the rink during the fall and winter, sometimes for as many as eight hours a day. He supplements that by working out at a gym as often as four days a week for three hours at a time.

And if he seems dedicated, check out potential Olympic contender Thomas Hong, who’s now a junior at Atholton High School in Columbia. He goes to Korea to train every summer. At 14, he competed in the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, in January 2012, finishing fourth in two events.

Speedskating isn’t, however, only about individual achievements. There’s a team component, too. At the 2013 age-graded nationals in Omaha, Shaner, TJ, Thomas and former teammate Benjamin Oh of Burtonsville (now with United Capital Blade Speedskating) won the 3,000-meter relay gold. Shaner describes his race-winning pass as “the proudest moment of my entire career.”

“Within one lap, I closed a huge gap—maybe four or five body lengths—on an incredible skater,” Shaner says. “…And right when I was passing him, he moved to block me and I somehow jumped out of the way and then jumped back in front of him to complete it going into the turn. I don’t know how I pulled it off, but I was determined to bring my team to victory.”

Shaner’s brother, Nathan, a sophomore at Churchill and standout cyclist, followed his brother onto the ice in 2006. He loves speedskating because of the feeling it engenders.

“You can run fast, but it’s not smooth,” he says. “You’re hitting the ground over and over again. In speedskating, you’re gliding across the ice.”

There’s a certain cachet that goes with the sport now, too.

“At school, when people know that I speedskate, they’re like, ‘Wow! Are you going to go to the Olympics? Do you know Apolo Ohno? That’s really cool,’ ” says Olney’s Peter Ho, who’s a robotics whiz in addition to being a competitive skater.

For her part, Sophie Mittelstadt was practically born into the sport. Her mother used to speedskate as offseason training for cycling in the 1970s, long before short track became an Olympic sport in 1992.

“I used to figure skate, but it annoyed me how girly it was, so my mom urged me to try speedskating,” Sophie says. “What grabs me is that it’s a kind of community. It’s a small group of people compared to a lot of sports. You develop relationships with the skaters and their parents. I did indoor track this winter and it didn’t have that same feel.

“This sport is very hard. It’s very tedious. You have to work on your form a lot. You have to work on your strength. You have to work on your cardio.”

Sophie felt burned out for a while because of that, and took six months off. When she returned, she was “focusing more on having fun.” However, in early July, she broke her collarbone in a cycling accident and isn’t expected to be able to return to training until this fall.

Shaner, meanwhile, continues to work hard. He’s thinking he’d like to attend Dartmouth College after high school, since Dartmouth gives students six months in which to focus on extracurricular activities each year.

He eventually wants to go to the Olympics, of course, but if that doesn’t happen, he’d like to train future Olympians perhaps, or go into medicine.

For the time being, he’ll continue to try to climb the ladder in speedskating, even if it’s just at his own club. He’d like to catch up to its fastest competitor.

“Thomas’ speed is unfathomable,” Shaner says. “I’ve only beaten him on days that he was extremely tired.”

But, he adds, “he makes me a better skater.”

David Elfin is currently the web columnist for 106.7TheFan.

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