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Local coach accused of corporal punishment against youth speedskaters

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 12:33 AM

A local speedskating coach inflicted corporal punishment and verbal abuse on young skaters during recent stints with clubs in Virginia and Maryland, according to "numerous and credible" allegations made to U.S. Speedskating and recounted in a July 2010 warning letter to the coach from the organization. Yet the coach continues to teach children and adults in the Washington area and retains his coaching accreditation.

Kim Dong-Sung, an Olympic gold medalist from South Korea who owns and operates a thriving club in northern Virginia known as DS Speedskating, used hockey sticks, skate-blade guards, hammers, hand timers and other implements to strike skaters on the buttocks, stomach and hands, according to six skaters who said they were victims of abuse or witnesses to it.

Six other skaters, parents or officials provided The Post with second-hand accounts of corporal punishment allegations, saying children or friends who were struck confided in them. Most sources for this story declined to be named for fear the disclosures would subject them or their children to retribution in the tight-knit world of short track skating.

"If we didn't meet expectations, he would usually punish us in some way," one youth skater said during a recent interview. "He took a friend and me into the locker room and hit our butts repeatedly with a hockey stick. . . . No one was there to witness it. . . . It's not something you want to tell to the world. It's not real pleasing to tell people."

After receiving reports of the abuse allegations last spring, U.S. Speedskating, the national governing body for the sport, issued a sternly worded warning letter but took no further action against Kim, who is most famous in the United States for losing a gold medal to Apolo Anton Ohno at the 2002 Winter Games because of a penalty.

The organization could have suspended Kim or banned him from sanctioned meets, but officials say they were hamstrung in large part because of a lack of concrete evidence; the alleged victims never called the police.

Kim, the subject of front-page Post profile in March 2009, categorically denied the allegations during a 30-minute interview at Reston's SkateQuest this month, saying he never hit or verbally abused anyone. He cited U.S. Speedskating's inaction and the lack of police involvement as evidence that the charges had no merit.

"If these things are happening, it is not [a reporter] I am going to confront; it is a policeman," Kim said through an interpreter. Though he speaks English, Kim preferred to conduct the interview in his native Korean. "There is no truth in it. . . . It's easy for them to spread rumors about me because everybody knows me. . . . Nobody knows them."

Months after the charges were levied, 32 parents and associates signed a letter supporting Kim, and several parents at his current club told The Post the allegations were conceived by disgruntled parents motivated by politics, jealousy and financial disagreements.

The majority of the people who signed the letter had Korean surnames, suggesting that cultural differences might have been at least partly behind the divided opinion about the coach. Although corporal punishment is no longer considered an accepted practice in short track skating, several officials and skaters said, South Korean-born coaches are widely considered more demanding and discipline-oriented than their American counterparts.

Some parents of Korean descent complained privately about Kim's tactics but were reluctant to accuse him publicly for fear of humiliating him, hurting their children's skating careers or tarnishing the image of South Korean coaches in the United States, several people interviewed for this story said. The sources for this story were of both Korean and non-Korean ancestry.

Teaching or abuse?

Kim, 31, is considered a megastar in South Korea; he won 23 world championship medals and two Olympic medals during his career. Because of his fame and stature, when he came to the United States after retiring in 2002, he was in great demand as a coach. In 2007, he settled in Laurel and took a position at the now-defunct Wheaton Speedskating Club.

But he left both Wheaton in the spring of 2008 and the Potomac Speedskating Club last summer amid allegations of physical and verbal abuse, several parents and officials from the clubs said.

Skaters and parents said Kim kept the corporal punishment out of the view of parents by administering it in the locker room, at his home, or during dryland training sessions. Or, when they were on the ice, several skaters said, he sometimes wrapped his arm around a skater and grabbed a chunk of skin on the skater's chest or stomach and twisted it until tears came; from a distance, Kim appeared to be showing affection. Skaters and parents said he hit skaters as young as 6, but usually targeted the older, most accomplished males.

"He would basically beat me up until I learned something," another youth skater said. "He beat me with a hockey stick, hammer, a wrench. He jabbed me in the ribs with keys and gave me and several other skaters 'nipple twisters.'

"Toward the end, whenever I didn't do something right, even the most minor things, he would gather the whole team around together and basically humiliate me in front of everyone. [He would say] 'You're so stupid. You can't do this. Why are you training? You should be home watching on TV.' "

A third skater said Kim hit him with a hammer and hockey stick, used inappropriate language, behaved unprofessionally and manipulated the skate blades of skaters who defied him so they would skate poorly - a charge Kim also denied, saying he would never do anything to detract from his skaters' performances. The skater noted, however, that his father gave Kim permission to hit him if he did not skate well.

"The hitting was not the main issue," the skater said. "It's everything else. The hitting I can get over. These Korean parents pray to him, basically. They do everything for him. They buy him plane tickets, bring him food before practice, buy him donuts and coffee. . . . These people here treat him like he's God. It's all on the parents. The parents support him completely."

Kim acknowledged using a hockey stick to nudge skaters' boots as a teaching tool, or to demonstrate how low they should be to the ice when skating, but said he did not strike any skater. And he said his halting command of the English language and frequent lapses into Korean might have led to confusion about his intended meaning.

Divided opinions

U.S. Speedskating President Brad Goskowicz said in his 15 years as an officer in the sport, he had never come across charges like the ones raised against Kim.

"He was abusing a lot of skaters and some parents were upset about that," said Brad Olch, U.S. Speedskating's interim executive director when the complaints against Kim were lodged. "Yet a group of Korean parents who wanted their kids to succeed supported his methods. The board thought it was unacceptable - it was unacceptable . . . [And] I agree with those parents; it's disturbing that he's still involved."

Though the matter divided the U.S. Speedskating board, according to people close to the discussions, the organization decided it did not have grounds to punish Kim and instead sent the warning letter, which stated that "the behavior [described] above will not be tolerated and action will be taken" in the future.

Despite the inquiry, U.S. Speedskating officials made no attempt to speak or visit with Kim, and they have received no further complaints, Goskowicz said.

"We didn't have anything that, I guess you could say, was actionable, like a police report," Goskowicz said. "With the allegations, there was no way to know if they were accurate or not."

About 60 percent of the club members remained loyal to Kim as he created his own club, following him to DS Speedskating in the aftermath of the U.S. Speedskating's review and his departure from Potomac.

The 32 people that signed the letter on Kim's behalf last September declared that "the allegations that have been made against Coach Kim are not at all consistent with our experience of his coaching."

"It's their side of the story," said Des So, who has three children training with Kim and has known him for years, and also acted as the translator for him. "Our side of the story is there was an answer letter that our new team sent to U.S. Speedskating where all of the parents said, 'These are false accusations.' Our team is growing very rapidly, and a lot of people are jealous."

S.K. Lim said the allegations were surely manufactured by parents with gripes or grudges because nothing goes unseen on the ice.

"It's ridiculous to claim a coach was doing anything against a kid," said Lim, whose child began skating with Kim about 10 months ago. "They are making up stories. . . . How could you hit [the children]? He is just correcting their body movement. Someone who is not knowing the sport can say, 'Yeah, he is beating,' [but] in front of 20 or 30 parents? That is totally absurd. I don't know how people can do this allegation with a sound mind."

Getting stories straight

Rob Plum, who was a masters skater under Kim and board member at the Wheaton club, said he never saw Kim strike a skater, but watched him launch corner blocks - rubber course markers about the size of a hockey puck - at his students. What clinched his opposition to Kim, Plum said, occurred during a team meeting in a hotel room in Milwaukee the night before the start of a national championship meet in 2008.

"If anybody asks you if your coach hits you," he recalled Kim announcing to the team, "tell them no."

Another skater, a minor who declined to be named, said he was in the room at the time and confirmed the account. Through his interpreter, Kim denied making such remarks, speculating that he spoke in Korean and was misunderstood or mis-translated. A month after the alleged incident, he left the Wheaton club.

"Kim made that statement in English," Plum said. "Because it was a pivotal statement for me in terms of him being fired, it is burned into my brain cells. . . . The intent of his statement was clear to anyone who heard it."

Several parents and club officials said it took a while to realize what was occurring during Kim's stints at Wheaton and Potomac. Some parents withdrew their children when they learned of the allegations. Some parents gave their blessing to corporal punishment, saying it would help their children learn, several parents and skaters told The Post. In many cases, parents and officials hoped the incidents were isolated events and tried to manage them instead of calling the police.

They said they hoped speaking with Kim, and explaining to him that such behavior was unacceptable in the United States, would resolve the problems.

Richard Semba, a physician who skated with Kim for about 10 months at the Potomac Speedskating Club as a masters skater, said club officials confronted Kim in 2008 after they saw him order young skaters off the ice and into the locker room; the children later said Kim hit them with skate guards. Several officials said Kim declined to change his behavior.

Kim said the allegations against him had been so demoralizing he had considered leaving the United States , but his commitment to youngsters he is hoping to turn into Olympic champions persuaded him to stay.

He said he would never take any action that would be detrimental to the careers of his children. And urging them to cheat, he noted, would subject them to possible penalties of they were caught.

"If all of these things were true, U.S. Speedskating would have taken my license permanently away [and] they didn't even investigate," Kim said. "If U.S. Speedskating would have actually prohibited [my] coaching in America, whatever it cost, I would have battled with U.S. Speedskating for my rights."

As it stands, he is free to coach. Some of his skaters will compete in the March 11-13 U.S. National Short Track Championships in Weston, WI., and Kim intends to be there, in the coaching box.

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