Speedskating • Ex-Canadian coach must deal with short-track program's split.
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Kearns • Guy Thibault has worn these shoes before.
The former Canadian Olympic speedskater walked into the fire back in 1998, when he assumed head coaching duties of his homeland's short-track speedskating program.
There were feuding factions. There was seething discontentment. Then there was Thibault, who was thrust into the position of mending a high-profile Olympic program on the fly.
He made it work.
Thibault, who was hired as the new U.S. short-track head coach on Dec. 4, went on to lead Canada for eight years through two Olympic Winter Games and walked away having sewn up the deep cuts of a program once in dishevelment.
Fourteen years later, Thibault is choosing to do it all over again. He was on hand Friday at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns to see stars Lana Gehring and J.R. Celski each win the 1,500- and 500-meter races to earn spots on the winter World Cup team.
"It's not new to me," said Thibault. "It will take time, but I'm not here to change the world I'm here to help the skaters."
He'll be taking over head-coaching duties of the U.S. short-track program following this weekend's U.S. Short-Track Championships, a program left in shambles months after a scandal basically split the program in two, eventually forcing the resignation of former head coach Jae Su Chun and his assistant, Jun Hyung Yeo.
Chun and Yeo resigned from their posts with U.S. Speedskating after admitting that they knew American skater Simon Cho tampered with a skate of a fellow racer in last year's world championship races in Poland and kept it under wraps. Chun has also been accused of mental and physical abuse by many skaters within the U.S. short-track program during his time served as coach, but an independent investigation found no pattern of abuse.
Now, Thibault faces the enormous task of preparing a program that has won 85 Olympic medals just 14 months away from the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
His first order of business, like it was back in Canada in 1998, is to try to find a common ground between the groups of skaters who still favor Chun and Yeo and those who were glad to see the former coaches move on.
"I think Guy is going to be a bridge-builder," said Mark Greenwald, executive director of U.S. Speedskating. "If we can keep our skates off the soft ice, we'll be in the right place come 14 months from now."
Thibault said the relationship he and Chun have is a healthy one and that the two will work together when it comes to bettering the future of the program and its skaters. Chun and Yeo have become volunteer coaches at a new speedskating club called Salt Lake International and some of the U.S. Speedskating's top athletes, including Jessica Smith and Gehring, have followed them to continue their tutelage.
"I want these guys to be part of this, too," Thibault said of Chun and Yeo. "I'm not here to compete with them. I want what's best for the skaters."
According to Greenwald, Jessica Smith and J.R. Celski were just some of the people involved with the interview process, as the two represented the athletes on the panel.
"At the end of the day, we need somebody in the coach's box at the Olympics," said Smith, adding that she will continue to train with Chun. "[U.S. Speedskating] ended up choosing Guy, and that's the story."
While that may be the case, Greenwald said the program must be wary of how much involvement there is going forward as the former U.S. coaches are currently under sanctions banning the pair from coaching at international events through the Sochi Games.
"People try to solve problems with a shotgun, when what they need is a scalpel," Greenwald said. "We need to be very careful. We only have 14 months before the Olympic Games. We can't afford major setbacks. We need to regroup."
Up until last week, Thibault was serving as a high-performance adviser for the German Speedskating Federation. It just so happened that his contract expired this month, and when he saw the short-track job was open a few weeks ago, he consulted with his wife before he decided to apply.
When asked about his first message to each group of skaters with particular loyalties, Thibault shrugged.
"I don't care where you are [training]," he said, "I want to make this work."
Guy Thibault file
• Canadian native competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Winter Games as a long-track speedster.
• Coached U.S. long-track program from 1995-1998; was high-performance director for U.S. Speedskating from 2006-2010.
• His first order of business is to bring the team together after a coaching scandal basically split the team into two factions.
• Says he has a healthy relationship with former U.S. short-track coach Jae Su Chun, who now coaches Salt Lake International.
Results and schedule
Friday's U.S. Short-Track Championship results
Women's 1,500-meter champion • Lana Gehring
Men's 1,500-meter champion • J.R. Celski
Women's 500-meter champion • Lana Gehring
Men's 500-meter champion • J.R. Celski
Women's 1,000-meter final • 12:30 p.m.
Men's 1,000-meter final • 12:50 p.m.
Women's 3,000-meter final • 1:30 p.m.
Men's 3,000-meter final • 1:50 p.m.