Last Friday, John-Henry Krueger was at the White House, celebrating alongside President Trump and many other members of the U.S. Olympic team their recent accomplishments at the PyeongChang Games.
Three days later, he switched countries, choosing to leave Team USA for a nation he feels offers more money and better opportunities.
Krueger, the most promising member of the U.S. short-track speedskating team, has decided he’ll now compete for Hungary instead of the United States. Krueger’s decision comes barely two months after winning a silver medal for the United States at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, where he became the first American to win an individual speedskating medal since the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“We have started the formal process of requesting and securing John-Henry’s release from the U.S. team,” Brian E. Koeberle, a Pittsburgh-based attorney who represents the skater, said in an email.
Krueger’s mother shared his decision on Facebook, according to USA Today, which was the first to report the news, saying the 23-year old short-tracker had “accepted the Hungarian’s offer to represent Hungary.”
“Be clear JH did not leave his country, but is leaving the federation that callously abandoned him on so many fronts long ago and then refused to thoughtfully consider any of JH’s concerns, opinions, and requirements,” she posted.
In an email to USA Today, the 23-year-old Krueger indicated his decision was largely financially motivated, saying “if I continue pursuing my career with the US team I will bankrupt myself and my family.”
“Hungary supports its achieving athletes on a level above and beyond anything I have asked for or would ever ask for from US Speedskating,” he said. “I will be able to pay for basic necessities like groceries, rent, apartment furnishings, clothes and equipment without putting myself and my family in debt. The coaching and team in Hungary is competitive with any in the world. I am excited to see what I can achieve when these negative variables are removed.”
A spokesman for US Speedskating did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Although Krueger competed for the U.S. squad in PyeongChang, it was well-known in speedskating circles that he’d long been at odds with the sport’s governing body in the United States and felt he was better served training elsewhere.
He was a promising prospect hoping to make the U.S. squad in 2014 but got sick before the Olympic trials and wasn’t eligible to compete at the Sochi Games because US Speedskating rules do not allow for discretionary selections. In the years heading to PyeongChang, he opted to train in South Korea and later the Netherlands, rather than work with U.S. coaches in Salt Lake City, where US Speedskating is based.
Krueger’s older brother, Cole, has been competing for Hungary the past two years, though he did not qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics. Heidi Weisenbacher-Krueger did not return an email seeking comment Monday evening but said in her Facebook post that both of her sons will have dual citizenship.
The Wall Street Journal documented last year some of the family’s misgivings with US Speedskating, which date back several years. After coach Jae Su Chun parted ways with federation in 2012 under a cloud of controversy, the Kruegers eventually followed him to a private club. More recently, US Speedskating reportedly threatened to withhold a monthly stipend because Krueger declined to wear a heart-rate monitor and share the data with U.S. coaches.
The brothers also refused to sign an athlete agreement with US Speedskating, preferring to seek out their own sponsors rather than wear the logos of those supported by the federation. They peeled sponsor logos off their suits, according to the Wall Street Journal, and even turned their jackets inside-out before taking the podium at a World Cup event.
“JH did his job, he won a Medal for the USA,” Heidi Weisenbacher-Krueger wrote on Facebook. “Now it is time to move on and make choices that will help him be the best skater he can be in 2022. All of our US skating friends will always be our friends….in that regard nothing changes.”
Krueger’s absence will certainly be felt by the U.S. short-track team, where he was both the biggest talent entering PyeongChang and also the most promising skater heading into the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Krueger swept all three distances at the U.S. trials in December – 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters – and was the only American short-tracker of either gender to qualify in all four events (which includes a relay). He won his silver medal in the 1,000 in PyeongChang, the U.S. team’s lone short-track medal of the 2018 Olympics.
Though Krueger is not from Hungary, the family has claimed some ancestry there, and he’s able to take advantage of an Olympic rule that allow countries to grant citizenship as they see fit. According to Rule 41 of the Olympic charter, an athlete that competes for one country must wait three years before competing for another in an Olympic Games. That would mean Krueger should be eligible to skate for Hungary’s team in 2022.
While there are plenty of examples of American athletes competing for other nations on an Olympic stage, it’s usually because they didn’t qualify for the U.S. team. It’s rare for an American athlete to win an Olympic medal for the United States and then switch athletic allegiances.
The Krueger brothers are from Peters Township, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh, and at a young age knew they’d have to travel for top-class training. For several years, Heidi Weisenbacher-Krueger would load her sons into a minivan and drive to the Washington area for coaching. To save money, they’d often sleep in tents at campgrounds, cabins or once in the family car.
She’ll have to travel a lot further to watch her sons train and compete, but the family is hopeful that by competing for a new country, the Kruegers will have a longer, more sustainable athletic career.
Read more Olympics: