KEARNS, Utah — The two men sat within rows of each other at the Utah Olympic Oval, both with a vested interest in the U.S. short-track team as it points toward the 2014 Olympics.
One was Guy Thibault, a French-Canadian and two-time Olympian who takes over as new coach of the American national team.
The other was Jae Su Chun, the South Korean former head coach who was ousted this fall amid scandal. He recently was reunited with some of his top skaters, including women’s champ Lana Gehring. Chun has been suspended by U.S. Speedskating but is volunteering his services for the splinter group Salt Lake International.
“I’m not there to fight him,” Thibault said.
He insists there is mutual respect and they both want what is best for the U.S. team, with the Sochi Games a little more than a year away.
How it all comes together remains to be seen.
Consider the makeup of the new World Cup team selected Saturday at the national championships: Four are members of the national program, two have gone back to Chun and six skate for another splinter group, FAST, that was part of the initial complaint against Chun.
Even Thibault acknowledges he hesitated before applying for the job this fall because he wasn’t sure “how deep the scar was between skaters.”
Even figuring out to get them practicing together will require work.
“I don’t expect some of them to become best friends by the Olympic Games, but I’m sure they will grow to respect their teammates,” Thibault said.
He speaks from experience.
Thibault took over the Canadian short track program in 1998 when he said the animosity was obvious between the French-Canadians in Montreal and skaters from Calgary.
“Competition between centers is good, but (not) when it becomes aggressive and rude,” he said.
“There were two main groups back then. Within a year or two, we were one big family again. But it didn’t happen in one day.”
Thibault has about 13 months before the Sochi Games when athletes in a mostly individual sport must compete together in relays and represent the U.S. as one.
“It’s a short window,” said Thibault, who competed for Canada in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Winter Games as a long-track speedskater.
He believes the key is to stress the positive. He saw plenty of that last weekend when Gehring and JR Celski dominated to win championships.
“I was glad to see the Lana I saw winning medals before. And the top speed of a few skaters, especially on the men’s side, was pretty good,” he said.
After the holiday break he hopes to speak with each skater individually.
“Stepping out of coaching in 2006 was a good thing,” Thibault said. “When you are a spectator, you see a lot more. You see the other countries and what they do, look at the coaches and what they do. Personally, I learned a lot of things.”
Thibault was head coach of the U.S. national long track team from 1995-98, and head coach of the Canadian national short track team from 1998-2006.
After that he was high performance director for the U.S. leading to the Vancouver Games and most recently served as an adviser to the German team.
Mark Greenwald executive director of U.S. Speedskating, said the new coach is intellectual, reserved, focused and analytical.
“He understands the difficulty of this challenge,” Greenwald said. “Nobody walking into this is going to have an easy time. He knew what the challenge was and still wanted to do it. He sees the potential there.”
Greenwald is encouraged that several athletes – notably FAST skater Celski and Chun supporter Jessica Smith – had some input in the selection process. He thinks that will help Thibault get off to a good start.
Celski says it’s important to smooth things out before next season because the pressure will only build. He has confidence in Thibault, mostly because of Thibault’s success in Canada.
“He was a coach for the Canadian team during one of their most dominant times in the sport,” Celski said. “I think he brings a lot of experience to the table and a good attitude, so I really look forward to seeing what he can do.”
There’s plenty of pressure considering the American speedskating program has won 85 Olympic medals.
Thibault, no doubt knows the numbers, and the odds, and is ready to extend invitations to skaters from each faction to join him. He hopes they will at least make an effort to listen.
Alyson Dudek, who qualified for the World Cup team while working with coaches from the FAST group, said she likes Thibault and believes things can only get better.
“There’s just an opportunity there and I’m excited to see what it is,” she said.
While an investigation did not find evidence to support allegations of widespread abuse by Chun, he and his assistant remain under sanctions banning them from coaching at international events through the Sochi Games.
Wounds figure to be re-opened when a report is issued involving skate-tampering charges against skater Simon Cho, who contends Chun ordered him to mangle a Canadian rival’s skate during the world championships.
It will be one more hurdle for Thibault no matter what happens.
‘’A coach is like a doctor,” Thibault said. “We’ll start fixing what needs to be fixed.”