by JULIE HA
U.S. Olympic bronze medalist Simon Cho has admitted to tampering with a Canadian athlete’s skate prior to a 2011 international competition, saying he did it under pressure from his coach Jae Su Chun who is currently facing a wide range of abuse allegations from members of the national team.
“It’s something I’m deeply embarrassed and sad about it,” Cho told KoreAm, during a phone interview Thursday afternoon from Utah, where the 20-year-old Korean American speed skater lives and trains. “It was the biggest mistake of my life and one that I regret with all my heart.”
Chun, the U.S. national team short track head coach since 2007, was put on administrative leave last month, following a grievance filed with U.S. Speedskating by a dozen skaters who have accused him of physical, psychological and verbal abuse. Chun has denied the allegations, though admitted to pushing a skater once. Meanwhile, some skaters, including Lana Gehring and Chris Creveling, have stood firmly behind their coach.
Cho was not among the skaters who filed the grievance, which seeks the removal of the national coaching team, but he was included in the abuse investigation after teammate Jeff Simon told investigators about the alleged skate tampering ordered by Chun.
Cho told KoreAm that Chun asked him three times to “mess up” a Canadian skater’s skate in advance of a 5,000-meter relay race at the World Team Championships in March of 2011 in Warsaw, Poland.
“He believed that the Canadian team was team skating against us,” said Cho. “Jae Su believed that the Canadians let the Japanese team finish ahead of them in order for them to acquire enough points to move to the next round and eliminate us.
“The race he was upset about was actually our second to last race, and the results made it so that, no matter how well we did, we wouldn’t be able to advance to the next round,” Cho explained. “So he was very bitter and frustrated about that. That was his justification, that he believed the Canadians were being unfair and obnoxious, and that’s why we needed to do the same.”
The first time Chun asked him to tamper with a Canadian’s skate, Cho said Simon was with him, and Cho said he refused to do it. The second time, Cho said that Chun approached him while he was alone, and told him to do it again, but the skater said no. The third time, Cho said, Chun told him, in Korean, “’You need to do this. If you want to carry this team into the next Olympic Games, you have to do this.’ That’s when he told me he’d take 100 percent responsibility for it.”
Cho said he considered Chun his mentor and someone he looked up to. “When he told me these things, it took me by surprise. This isn’t the person I once knew.”
Cho said he agreed because “I knew he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“He’s my coach,” said Cho. “I spent more time with him than I do with anybody else. He was an authority figure to me at the time. Whatever he told me, I’d do at practice. This had me very confused and scared.”
Cho said Chun did not tell him specifically whose skates to tamper with or how, but because the U.S. and Canadian teams shared a locker room, he found a very narrow window of time where nobody else was around. He said he took the first skate he saw, and, using a machine used to bend and maintain blades, tampered with the skate. “Because something like this is unheard of, when I did it, I had never used the bending machine before, so I had no idea what I was doing,” said Cho. “So I didn’t do it cleverly, and there was a mark on the skate.”
That skate belonged to Oliver Jean, who was forced out of the race due to a damaged blade, and Canada was subsequently left with three skaters in the relay, finishing fourth.
“The whole time I knew this was completely wrong, and I felt horrible,” said Cho. “When the Canadian team went out to skate, I heard one of the skaters was having blade trouble, and I felt extremely guilty and horrible. I regretted it right away.”
He said it is a source of shame that has remained with him.
It is unclear whether Cho will face a ban, suspension or other consequences. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope to continue skating in the future,” said Cho, who failed to make the U.S. World Cup team during trials this past weekend and attributed it to feeling distracted by the current scandal.
He has cooperated fully with investigators, Cho said. He planned to hold a press conference Friday to reveal the truth publicly.
“Before, I was referred to as Simon Cho, bronze medalist,” he said, his voice strained from a bout with strep throat. “Now it’s Simon Cho, the guy that tampered with someone’s skates. That was very hard on me and my family. The best thing I can do now is be honest about everything and tell the truth.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Speedskating has called its own news conference on Friday, as an independent investigative report on the abuse allegations against Chun is scheduled to be released.