New U.S. short track hire causes team to splinter

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The fact that former long track coach Guy Thibault will is taking the reins of the U.S. short track team following Octobers resignation of Jae Su Chun has caused yet another rift among U.S. athletes.

Vancouver bronze medalist Lana Gehrig, world team member Jessica Smith, and up-and-coming teen skater John-Henry Krueger will all continue to skate with Chun and his assistant Jun Hyung Yeo, but will be forced to pay for the instruction out-of-pocket.

Chun’s team, which will go by the name Salt Lake International, is now the second group to break from the U.S. program following the creation of FAST coached by Anthony Barthell and Alex Izykowski.

Chun resigned two months ago amid allegations of physical and verbal abuse, and an admission from 2010 bronze medalist Simon Cho, who said he tampered with a rival’s skates at Chun’s request last year.

While Gehrig, who told the Chicago Tribune that Chun is the one who made her the skater she is, seems excited by the prospect, U.S. Speedskating executive director Mark Greenwald is less enthused.

“We have an obligation to manage and lead the sport appropriately and encourage people to follow rules and standards, and we have tried to do that,” Greenwald said. “We are not going to act to support [SLI] in any way. We are in the process of putting back into place the National Racing Program with top-level coaches.”

It certainly doesn’t help that no U.S. female team member has made a world cup final this season, a run that Gehrig and her teammates hope to end at the Samsung ISU Short Track this weekend in Shanghai.

USA Gymnastics faces change, golden glow gone amid scandal

AP
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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — On the floor of the Honda Center, the P&G Gymnastics Championships are imbued with a sense of normalcy and routine. Of tumbling runs and coaching tweaks. Of blaring music and chalk dust. Of leaps and leotards. Of the search for who’s next.

There is no sign of an organization in crisis trying to finds its way following a stormy year that’s seen one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee brands shaken from the head of its national office in Indianapolis down to the smallest of its 3,546 member clubs.

To find the fallout from allegations of sexual abuse against a longtime former national team doctor and a subsequent independent review that called for significant changes in the manner in which USA Gymnastics protects its athletes, you need to pull back.

While the women’s field went through final preparations Thursday for Friday night’s opening round of competition (TV schedule here), in a hotel conference room across the street 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher and fellow retired gymnast Rachael Denhollander called for several members of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors to resign, insisting the organization needs to make a clean break from its past before it can begin moving forward.

“A complete change in USAG leadership is needed starting at the top,” said Dantzscher, part of a bronze-medal-winning team from Sydney.

In a convention center a few miles away, hundreds of gym operators and coaches tried to figure out how to best implement the guidelines outlined by Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor who made 70 recommendations in June — all immediately adopted — designed to provide athletes, their parents and coaches better safeguards and greater recourse against accused abusers.

In Michigan, Larry Nassar — who spent nearly 30 years working as an osteopath for USA Gymnastics’ elite athletes — sat in prison after pleading guilty to three child pornography charges. Nassar is still awaiting trial on nearly two dozen other charges while also facing more than 100 civil lawsuits claiming he abused female athletes during his tenure at both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State. Many are in mediation and four cases in California are tied up in the courts.

The golden glow from the Final Five’s medal-hogging performance in Rio faded quickly. While Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez spent the last 12 months enjoying celebrity, USA Gymnastics played defense, figuring out where to go after being named as a co-defendant in civil cases filed against Nassar.

Longtime women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi — who along with husband Bela was named a co-defendant in some of the lawsuits — retired shortly after Rio. The organization recently pulled out of a deal to purchase the Karolyi Ranch, which has served as the de facto home of the women’s program for nearly two decades.

Steve Penny was forced out as president and chief executive officer in March for mishandling a number of abuse cases. A replacement for Penny will likely be named by September, while Valeri Liukin took over for Karolyi last fall, tasked with both continuing the women’s programs dominance while also creating a more transparent culture.

“It adds a lot of stress, but guess what, we have a lot of great people in the country, a lot of great people,” Liukin said. “Having one bad person doesn’t mean that it’s going to affect the program. We are more careful right now. We take steps to make prevent [abuse] from happening.”

Less than two months removed from Daniels’ report, there are signs of progress. National team members who fly into Houston for training camps must be escorted to the camp with at least two other people along for the ride to avoid any one-on-one interaction. Underage female gymnasts with male coaches who are picked to compete internationally must now travel with a credentialed female chaperone. One-on-one visits to cabins the athletes use during overnight stays by medical staff is now prohibited.

“They need to know that their safety is our utmost priority,” said Rhonda Faehn, the senior vice president of the women’s program. “We need to make sure that they know that and that they feel it.”

That’s at the national level. Policing at a local level is another matter entirely. Denhollander came forward as part of an investigation by The Indianapolis Star that discovered USA Gymnastics collected complaints of improper conduct by over 50 coaches between 1996 and 2006 and regularly declined to forward them on to the authorities unless expressly asked to do so.

The new guidelines require member gyms to go to authorities immediately. Daniels suggested USA Gymnastics consider withholding membership from clubs that decline to do so. The organization also named Toby Stark, a child welfare advocate, as its director of SafeSport. Part of Stark’s mandate is educating members on rules, educational programs, reporting and adjudication services.

Many member clubs have already adopted some of the recommended policies on their own.

Tony Retrosi, owner and coach at Atlantic Gymnastics Training Center in New Hampshire, has long prevented his staff members from having one-on-one electronic media exchanges with underage athletes. It falls in line with best practices put forward by USA Gymnastics in 2015.

There is much to be done. Dantzscher and Denhollander don’t believe real progress is possible until board chairman Paul Parilla, vice chairman Jay Binder and treasurer Bitsy Kelley are removed. All three signed a letter supporting Penny in March after the United States Olympic Committee called for his ouster.

“It is clear that the board intends to conduct business as usual,” Dantzscher said.

Parilla said in June he had no plans to step down, and late Thursday other members of the board of directors issued a statement saying they are “confident our Board officers will continue to lead us through the coming months.”

Yet for all its issues at the top, impact on the sport at the grassroots level has been minimal. USA Gymnastics membership rose by nearly 3 percent from Aug. 1, 2016 to July 31, 2017, to a record high of 198,636, showing that among members belief in the organization’s purpose remains strong.

At some point the smoke will clear. At some point the attention will turn back to what’s happening on the competition floor. Dantzscher’s goal — beyond giving the board of directors a makeover — is her sport embracing the painful but necessary steps required to create true change from “mommy and me” intro classes to the Olympic stage.

Asked if she believes such a change is possible, Dantzscher paused before answering.

“I hope so.”

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MORE: For Gabby Douglas, this break from gymnastics is different

Ragan Smith, Ashton Locklear lead U.S. gymnastics’ new wave

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ANAHEIM, California (AP) — Technically, Ragan Smith never stepped foot on the floor as a competitor at the Rio Olympics as the star-studded U.S. women’s gymnastics team beat a steady and relentless path to the podium on its way to medal after medal after medal.

Not that it mattered to Smith. Technically the 17-year-old was a “replacement athlete,” a fancy description for “alternate.” Funny, she didn’t feel like one as she trained up to and through the games just in case.

“If you ask her, she says she’s an Olympian,” coach Kim Zmeskal Burdette said.

And now she’s the center of attention.

As the “Final Five” take a break and weigh their future Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian are being inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame on Saturday — the 17-year-old Smith finds herself as the face of the program as the P&G Championships begin Friday night.

This weekend marks the first time since 2005 that no one on the previous Olympic team returned to compete the following year, leaving the stage to Smith and the next wave in a program that plans to keep on rolling with Valeri Liukin taking over for retired national coordinator Martha Karolyi.

“The expectations are the same,” said Rhonda Faehn, senior vice president of the women’s program.

P&G CHAMPS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
TV Schedule | Final Five Updates

No big deal or anything. All Smith and company have to do is follow in the footsteps of the most decorated team of all time. That’s fine with Smith and her coach, who won Olympic bronze at age 16 in 1992.

“People ask about pressure and adding pressure and it’s doesn’t if that’s what you were striving for in the first place,” Zmeskal Burdette said. “If you want to be the one people are talking to, it gives you more confidence.”

Something Smith is not lacking. She made a splash in 2016 in her first year as a senior, her tiny size and infectious floor exercise — set to theme from “The Addams Family” — making her instantly recognizable. She’s ditched it for something a little more grown up this year, by design.

“It’s sassy instead of very cute,” Zmeskal-Burdette said. “That’s the character she feels very good with. She is sassy. So be it.”

And a pretty good gymnast in her own right. While she’s talked openly about trying to extend her elite career through the Tokyo Games, Smith is trying to focus on the now.

“I don’t think, ‘Oh the 2020 Olympics,’ I don’t think about that ever really,” she said. “I just have it in the back of my mind as a goal.”

One that remains far off. Biles did the near impossible when she won three consecutive world all-around titles before winning a record-tying five medals in Rio. At this point, Smith would settle for a solid weekend at the Honda Center and a spot as one of four U.S. women at October’s world championships in Montreal.

So far, so good. Smith won the AT&T American Cup in March and seems at ease with being one of the favorites, though not the only one.

Ashton Locklear served as an Olympic alternate along with Smith and is eager to prove she’s more than just a wonder on uneven bars. Riley McCusker shook off a shaky performance at the American Cup — including a frightening dismount on balance beam — to bounce back and win the all-around and the beam at an international meet in Italy a few weeks later.

“That’s the gymnast she is,” coach Maggie Haney said.

One who is hardly afraid of the standards set by those who came before.

“It’s definitely cool being the next generation,” McCusker said. “I think we can prove ourselves and be the same or even better than the last generation.”

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MORE: For Gabby Douglas, this break from gymnastics is different