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Thursday, February 11, 2010
Competition from within

By Melissa Isaaacson
ESPNChicago.com

Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. has a unique coaching style.

Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr./Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr.
Communication is vital when Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. is coaching her daughter, Nancy Jr.

"I coach intuitively," she said. "I need to feel what my skaters feel. I used to actually skate with them to accomplish it."

Swider-Peltz, who lives in Wheaton, Ill., is a four-time Olympic speedskater and former world-record holder who coaches her daughter, Nancy Jr., as well as Brian Hansen of Glenview, Ill.

Swider-Peltz stretches her skaters, massages them and fixes their skates. While on the ice during training, she continually asks questions and alters their workouts on the fly. And during competition, the communication and adjustments only become more important.

Why Swider-Peltz has been essentially gagged and blindfolded for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, offers but one glimpse inside a sport in which the USA on the skaters' uniforms belies a climate that is anything but united.

Swider-Peltz is one of five personal coaches who did not receive Olympic credentials to coach their seven skaters in the biggest competition of their lives. Told that there simply were not enough credentials to go around, coaches were under the assumption that if they somehow managed to procure a credential on their own, then access to the ice should not be a problem. But clearly, there was more to it than that.

Last week, without access to their skaters, some personal coaches were left scurrying to find locations outside the rink to meet, causing their athletes, they said, unnecessary inconvenience and stress. But they were still better off than Mike Witty, coach of skater Mitch Whitmore and an unemployed carpenter who remains in the Milwaukee area, a little too far to offer any real guidance.

"As a coach, I just want to be there for my skater," Witty said. "It's not just that it's cool to be on the ice, it's having access to my skater who I've coached for four years."

Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr./Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr.
Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr. might have to coach her daughter, Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr., from the stands at the Olympics.

Bob Crowley, executive director of U.S. Speedskating, said the federation hires national coaches, who "have to fulfill a lot of requirements and go through numerous background checks to take the team through the World Cup, World Championships and, ultimately, the Olympic Games. … We're looking at servicing the entire contingent, not just an individual.

"There's only so much we can do. It's their choice to be angry if they're angry."

U.S. Speedskating officials have used eight-time gold-medal winner Michael Phelps as an example of an athlete who had his coach watching from the stands at the most recent Summer Olympics. But Witty and others point out that that was not an ideal situation, either, and that every coaching situation is different.

"This is not Michael Phelps, and this is not swimming," Witty said. "Instead of making a flippant remark about Michael Phelps, he [Brad Goskowicz, president of U.S. Speedskating] could have taken the opportunity to explain himself and what we can do to influence them to change things.

"It's not like this is a new problem. It's something they knew was going to happen. They knew there were members of the team not part of the U.S. Speedskating program. Then they turn around and tell us that wanting to be on the ice with our skaters was an ego thing."

Crowley said that, in conjunction with the U.S. Olympic Committee, the decision was made that they would receive 10 credentials in all for support staff. Included on the list of those allowed to be on-ice are three national team coaches, the team psychologist, the team masseuse, two trainers and a team leader.

"They gave 10 credentials to fat cats like sponsors and a video analyst," said longtime coach Bob Fenn, who worked with gold-medal winner Shani Davis in 2006. "What is that? If you want a video analyst, have him sit in one corner of the stands one day and another corner the next. The same thing with something they call the high-performance director."

Personal coaches said that after their athletes made the Olympic team, they were never contacted by U.S. Speedskating to talk about access to their skaters, nor were they given any help in buying tickets.

"We understand accreditation difficulty for the actual race, but complete access to our athletes for all training, especially since the rink is virtually empty, is a restriction without logic," Swider-Peltz said. "Why put that stress on the athletes and coaches?"

Meanwhile, the U.S. team coaches will be guiding athletes with whose technique, personalities, motivational needs and abilities they are only casually familiar.

Private coach Paul Marchese, who also trains Olympic skater Trevor Marsicano -- a medal contender in the 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000 meters -- at the Pettit National Ice Center outside Milwaukee, said there is a big difference in Marsicano's performance when he is there to observe and advise.

"All this is counter to putting an athlete into a high-performance state of mind," Marchese told the Albany Times Union.

When Marchese considered going through the Chinese team, whose short-track team he tutors, for credentials, U.S. high-performance director Guy Thibault made it clear to the paper that U.S. Speedskating would not let that happen.

"No way our association or the [U.S.] Olympic Committee will allow a credential for somebody else who is coaching another country to beat us," he said.

"It's not uncommon at all for coaches to coach skaters from different countries," said a fellow coach of Marchese's. "To shut out an American coaching his own skater is not necessary."

So why the spirit of animosity? Those close to the situation say petty jealousies and rivalries between factions that train in Salt Lake City, the home of U.S. Speedskating, and Wisconsin play a major part. One coach suggested that U.S. Speedskating doesn't like the idea of skaters trained outside the national program succeeding and, worse, beating their skaters. When the USOC is giving millions of dollars to the federation and expecting medals in return, that can be particularly embarrassing.

"Absolutely, it's about power and control," said Fenn, who also coached gold-medal winner Dan Jansen early in his career. "They think all of speedskating is in Salt Lake. Well, it encompasses all around the U.S."

Crowley disputed the notion that the federation is resentful of athletes who exist outside the national program.

"It's their option," he said. "If they participate in the national program, there are a number of benefits that come along with that, and some skaters take advantage of that and some don't, and that's fine. We have no problem with it at all."

Yet, when he was talking about what he would do with any extra credentials, it was hard not to detect a trace of bitterness in his remarks.

"If we said we could only get one more credential, who does it go to?" Crowley asked. "Do you give it to the mother who coaches her daughter? Do you give it to the coach who also coaches the Chinese team trying to beat us?

"There are two sides to the story, but it shouldn't be a negative story. [Personal coaches] should be celebrating that they coached skaters to an Olympic level."

But Fenn -- who, like Swider-Peltz, remembers well the days when speedskating was still done outdoors -- said the current controversy shows a lack of respect to the traditions of the sport.

"These guys coming into sport now didn't even have diapers when Nancy Swider was skating," he said. "They don't know the first thing about outdoor skating. They didn't pay their dues."

For Swider-Peltz, who has coached seven Olympic skaters, she is doing what she can to coach her athletes, even if it means running up her cell phone bill.

"It's just about fairness of competition," she said.

It is the Olympics, after all.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.