On thin ice

Salt Lake International speedskaters, from left, Keith Carroll, Lana Gehring and Tamara Frederick split from U.S. Speedskating to follow suspended coach Jae Su Chun. Internal division among athletes is just one of several problems facing U.S. Speedskating. (John J. Kim/Tribune Photo)

Before they began practice one recent morning in Salt Lake City, Olympic bronze medalist Lana Gehring of Glenview and four other elite speedskaters had to assemble protective pads around the walls of a municipal rink. Working in tandem, the skaters shuttled some 50 pieces of equipment — each resembling an oversized mattress and weighing about 90 pounds — from a storage area onto the ice. Then they slid the pads across the ice and against the walls, like puzzle pieces snapping into place.

It was a laborious exercise. But no one else was going to do it.

Until December, these skaters were part of US Speedskating's National Racing Program. That group trains across town at the Utah Olympic Oval, where all the equipment is ready — the pads installed permanently. The facility is dedicated to them during training time, and athletes practice on what is considered the best ice in the world.

But the members of Gehring's group became the third faction in an already splintered short-track team when they chose to follow their coach after he was suspended in a skate-tampering scandal. The national program was already down to five athletes after the departure of more than a dozen elite skaters protesting the federation, which governs the sport's two disciplines, short-track and long-track skating.

Such a fractured — and fractious — situation is the disconcerting place in which the most successful U.S. Winter Olympic sport finds itself less than a year from the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

While some of the division is due to skaters fighting among themselves and with the federation, it also is indicative of more general financial and organizational problems that have long plagued the governing body and have spun the sport into chaos, according to a Tribune examination of records and interviews with more than three dozen people. The speedskating federation walks such a financial tightrope that only a rescue effort by comedian Stephen Colbert bailed it out before the 2010 Games.

"When the wheels come off, I imagine they will come off hard," said 2006 Olympic champion Joey Cheek, a former federation board member.

Each Olympic sport has its own national governing body, with a staff and volunteer board of directors. The Tribune found the U.S. speedskating federation regularly loses money — more often than other governing bodies — and fails to raise significant sponsorship revenue to cover its $4.3 million budget. Part of an ongoing deficit, which last year had reached $752,414 according to its most recent tax filing, stems from counting on $350,000 in sponsorships that never materialized.

US Speedskating's consistent medal production, enhanced by the records of icons Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Apolo Ohno, has deflected attention from the festering issues that threaten future success.

Athletes are paying the price. The federation struggles to provide adequate support to skaters, such as consistent presence of medical trainers, and it has dramatically reduced skaters' stipends.

Performance is also down. After five short-track World Cup races last season, the women had won 13 individual and three relay medals. At the same point this season, zero medals.

An influx of cash would go only so far for an organization marked by inconsistent leadership and a board of directors that has been accused of impeding progress by meddling with daily operations. Mark Greenwald, hired in 2010 as US Speedskating's fourth executive director in five years, has been criticized for not living full time in the United States, failing to raise enough money and dismissing skaters' concerns as unjustified.

"Mark has made many mistakes, but he has been stonewalled by so many people on the board being selfish and wanting power," said Nancy Swider-Peltz, a four-time member of Olympic skating teams who is from Wheaton and coaches in Milwaukee. "He has had to deal with too many sideshows."

Greenwald, a two-time Olympian from Park Ridge, said changes he tried to implement may have caused friction because they were unpopular with some who have long had power in the sport. He said finances are improving.

"We've shown resilience under fire," Greenwald said.

But, sources say, the USOC is concerned and looking at all options.

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun has so far rejected using what he called "the nuclear option" of decertifying the federation to force reorganization. The other option, withholding funding, hurts the athletes, Blackmun said.

"If you blow it up, you start over with no membership rules, no income, and it is a pretty steep hill for them to climb," Blackmun said.

In August, 19 skaters filed a grievance against the governing body with a laundry list of allegations, including assertions that it violates the federal law that governs Olympic sports in the U.S. by operating in secret and discriminating on the basis of gender. US Speedskating denies the allegations, and most issues remain unresolved.

"We've dealt with so much stress and so many complaints and so much everything that it's taken a toll on everyone's training this summer when we should be focusing on what we need to do … leading up to the Olympics," said Jessica Smith, a 29-year-old skater from Michigan who won two World Cup medals last season. She was not among those who filed the grievance. "Nobody has been able to just focus on just skating."