“By 2019, I was kind of the ace of the team,” Hong said. “I was taking it year to year and still trying to decide about the next Olympics. But as long as I was having fun and getting better, it made sense to keep going.”
After the PyeongChang Games, U.S. Speedskating hired a new short-track coach, Wilma Boomstra, who brought an aggressive attitude and coaching style to the ice. But barely two years into her tenure, Hong and other skaters said Boomstra’s approach crosses a line, and they have accused her of verbal, mental and emotional abuse.
Now 23, Hong says he has lost his love for speedskating and is considering retirement less than 18 months before the 2022 Beijing Olympics. He’s one of at least three skaters who have turned down invitations to train with Boomstra on the national team. And he is one of three skaters who filed complaints against the coach this year.
U.S. Speedskating, the sport’s governing body, investigated. Among its findings, according to a letter it sent to skaters last month: “Emotional misconduct in the form of verbal acts such as threatening communication towards athletes,” “bullying behavior in the form of shaming athletes in front of others” and “name-calling.”
But the organization opted to retain Boomstra, defending her coaching while instituting reforms aimed at improving her relationships with skaters.
“We feel strongly that Wilma is a very good technical and tactical coach — one of the top coaches in the world,” said Ted Morris, the chief executive of U.S. Speedskating. “We all have areas that we can improve upon. We’re committed to giving her those tools to make her better. If it doesn’t get better, we’ll make a decision.”
U.S. Speedskating declined to make Boomstra available for an interview. In an email response to questions from The Washington Post, Boomstra said the investigation has given her “an opportunity to review, reflect and refocus on how I can be a better communicator with our athletes moving forward.”
“There is a fine line when it comes to motivating athletes,” she added. “What works for one athlete might not work for another. I need to improve my understanding of where that line is for each of my athletes.”
In interviews with The Post, though, several skaters in the tightknit short-track community — the national team is typically made up of 12 skaters — said Boomstra has already lost many athletes’ trust. She has inflicted emotional damage on young skaters, they said, and prompted talented veterans and promising prospects alike to quit or train apart from the national team.
“When these issues are brought up and at least half the team is telling them about these issues, it should be a major red flag,” one skater said. Added another: “It’s not ideal to be two years away from the Olympics and to have people quitting and refusing to skate for her.”
In interviews with The Post, eight skaters detailed abuse they said they’ve experienced and witnessed. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearful of retaliation by team officials and worried about risking their spots on future national teams or funding that comes from U.S. Speedskating. They described belittling comments, vulgar language and demanding and punitive practices. They also accused Boomstra of playing favorites and creating a culture of distrust.
“It’s like waking up every day, not wanting to do something I‘ve loved for years,” one skater said. “It’s like when you break up with a first love — just a gut-wrenching feeling like someone had ripped out your heart. And that was every day.”
After the U.S. team managed just one short-track medal at the 2018 Olympics, U.S. Speedskating wanted to shake up its leadership. It turned to Boomstra, 50, the brash Dutch coach who had coached the organization’s developmental team from 1993 to 1995. (In announcing her hire, U.S. Speedskating erroneously said Boomstra had coached the short-track national team during that period.) She later became a private coach, and for years several skaters turned to her to help prepare for the Olympics.
“Initially I was on board,” Hong said. “I’d trained with her for a couple of weeks when I was 15 or 16 and then again three to four weeks when I was 18. I was excited for the prospect of her being my coach.”
But Hong and others said they quickly discovered Boomstra’s style was a stark departure from what they were accustomed to. Practice sessions amounted to a daily barrage of screaming, insults and public humiliation, skaters said.
“If she doesn’t like the way you’re skating, she’ll call you an embarrassment,” one skater said. “She’ll say you don’t belong there. It’s mental abuse, and that’s what happened to me.”
“I was literally depressed all the time,” another said. “I didn’t want to go to practice. I knew as soon as I was there, any happiness would just go away. It felt like I was wasting my life.”
“It gets to a point where it’s not motivating skaters. She’s actively discouraging them,” said Jae Jae Yoo, a five-time member of the national team. He retired last year, in part because of injury, but he was put off by what he said he saw and heard from Boomstra. “You have people quitting the sport and leaving the program. How is that motivating them?”
Other skaters said Boomstra routinely referred to some female skaters as fat and made other comments about their weight or conditioning.
“At one point she told me, ‘If you’re going to skate with me, I need you to lean out,’ ” one skater said. “I had been bulimic three years prior to that. When she told me that, I weighed 110 pounds. I was not overweight, and I was still working on my relationship with food.”
Morris, the U.S. Speedskating executive, said he was “aware that she can be incredibly direct sometimes. But I feel we have 100 percent addressed that, and she understands that she’s not to weigh in on that, and that’s input our sports nutritionist should be providing to our athletes and not that head coach.”
Boomstra also regularly called athletes “pussies,” skaters said. Morris acknowledged that particular insult “popped up a lot in the investigation.” He said the coarse language has since been addressed.
“I think we need to have a little sympathy for someone where English is a second language,” he said. “You revert to the few tools you have in the toolbox.”
In her email to The Post, Boomstra said she does “not feel my interactions with skaters has been threatening in any way.”
“I’m disappointed that some athletes have perceived my interactions with them to be negative,” she said.
One incident from last summer offers a window into Boomstra’s style and U.S. Speedskating’s decision to keep her. When a teenage skater arrived late for a team workout, Boomstra instructed him to perform push-ups as punishment. But the skater had recently slashed his arm with a skate blade and was wearing a protective brace that prevented him from doing them. Boomstra instructed him to do them one-handed instead. His teammates were horrified.
“He tried to do the one-arm push-ups, crying the whole time, and kept falling back onto the mat,” said one skater who was present. “She was humiliating him. Everyone was watching.”
But the injured skater, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive situation, defended the coach.
“I was upset because obviously it was hard,” he said. But, he added: “I deserved it. I didn’t really think much about it. If anything, I was never late again.”
The skater is one of several who have reported positive experiences training under Boomstra.
“There are new people, and I think it’s even better this year,” he said. “We keep growing as a team.”
U.S. Speedskating’s Athlete Advisory Council, a group of skaters that plays a role in the organization’s governance, reviewed the investigative report and agreed that some of Boomstra’s tactics “do not serve a motivational or training purpose and … have been harmful to athletes.”
In a letter to U.S. Speedskating in July, the council wrote that Boomstra’s behavior “crossed the line” and “needs to change.” But it declined “to draw a conclusion on whether Wilma’s behavior constituted emotional abuse,” and it made no recommendation on her job status.
“We recognize that there is a fine line between challenging athletes for motivational/training purposes, and causing perceived emotional abuse,” long-track skater Carlijn Schoutens, the council chair, wrote in the letter.
In an interview, Schoutens, a bronze medalist from the 2018 Olympics who retired last year to pursue medical school, said distinguishing between motivational tactics and abusive behavior “is definitely not black-and-white.”
“That’s what makes this really difficult to reach any conclusion on,” she said. “Every coach has their style; every athlete has their preferred style of being coached. Hopefully, there’s a line.”
For the Athlete Advisory Council, one of the biggest problems identified by investigators was Boomstra’s “lack of fair coaching for lower caliber athletes at World Cups,” according to its letter. Skaters told The Post that less accomplished athletes often bore the brunt of her behavior and that signs of favoritism were evident from the start.
“She told me that I wasn’t worth her attention,” one skater said. “I wasn’t allowed to ask for advice or help. She would pretend to forget my name. She would tell me every day, ‘It’s a privilege for you to be here.’ ”
Boomstra’s frosty relationship with another skater, Jamie Jurak, hit a breaking point during a 2019 World Cup event in Italy. According to multiple people who witnessed the events, Boomstra approached Jurak after a bad relay exchange in training and told her she could no longer practice with her teammates. Jurak eventually pressed her for an explanation. “She said: ‘You don’t belong here. There’s nothing here to coach. You’re an embarrassment,’ ” according to one person familiar with the exchange, which was corroborated by others. Jurak was in tears.
Said Boomstra in an email: “We had included her in relay training the previous week in Germany and it created a dangerous situation on the ice for all of our athletes. The safety of our skaters is paramount.”
Morris said Boomstra delivered her message to Jurak in a poor way. “That came to our attention, and we addressed it,” he said, adding that they told her: “Hey, it doesn’t matter — this athlete qualified, she made the team, you need to integrate her as much as possible.”
Jurak was considering filing a formal complaint, according to two people familiar with the incident. Instead, she wrote an email in February 2019 to three U.S. Speedskating officials with the subject line, “Athlete Statement of Coach Misconduct.” “I have had MANY coaches in the 20 years and never has one told me I am not coachable or don’t belong out there on the ice,” she wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Post.
Jurak, who now skates long track, declined to comment. After hearing her concerns, U.S. Speedskating agreed to pay for part of her travel costs.
“We had a very direct conversation,” Morris said. “I could tell how upset she was. We had sent her the bill for reimbursement. When I saw how upset she was, I felt it was fair for us to cover 50 percent of it.”
In late 2019, after skaters voiced complaints to Boomstra and U.S. Speedskating officials, the group came together for a team meeting to talk through their concerns. Four skaters present at the meeting said Boomstra defended her tactics and refused to make changes.
After the meeting, Hong was miserable traveling with the national team, he said. Days would pass without the coach speaking to him. When she did, he said, she was tearing him down, no longer trying to make him better. At season’s end, he left the team with no intention of returning.
“I’ve always felt coaches had my best interest at heart,” Hong said. “This is the only time I’ve felt I have a coach actively hoping I wouldn’t do well.”
In March, at the conclusion of the 2020 World Cup season, several athletes decided to do more to combat Boomstra’s behavior. They were surprised to learn that U.S. Speedskating requires a $500 fee to file a complaint against another person. So they turned to U.S. Center for SafeSport, the organization created by Congress to protect amateur athletes from abuse.
SafeSport forwarded the complaints to U.S. Speedskating. A SafeSport spokesman said it routinely sends complaints that don’t allege sexual abuse back to national governing bodies. But the skaters said they were frustrated to learn SafeSport passed off their concerns because they didn’t trust U.S. Speedskating to do a proper investigation.
“If I knew that U.S. Speedskating was going to be the one investigating it themselves, I never would’ve done it,” said one of the athletes who filed a complaint. “It’s so pointless.”
U.S. Speedskating has been through this before. In 2012, more than a dozen short-track skaters boycotted the team, accusing Jae Su Chun, the national team coach at the time, of abusive behavior. A U.S. Speedskating investigation found no pattern of abuse, but the investigator said that “does not mean we are condoning the methods or the tactics that were used by the U.S. Speedskating coaches.” Chun resigned, and the team named a new head coach 16 months before the Sochi Games, where it won just one medal.
This time, Morris coordinated with law school students from a nearby university to carry out the investigation. After three-plus months of interviewing skaters and others, the investigators outlined concerning behavior, according to the letter sent to skaters, including “threatening communication,” “bullying behavior,” failure to provide “fair coaching for lower caliber athletes” and “intimidation by a coach in a position of authority over the skaters.”
U.S. Speedskating implemented a number of measures in response, according to the same letter: requiring a third party be present for all coach-athlete meetings; ongoing “team culture meetings” without Boomstra present “for feedback purposes”; and required meetings between Boomstra and a sports psychologist “on athlete communication and separation of coaching and personal relationships.” In addition, Boomstra is required to consult with the short-track program director before making any decisions that affect athletes, and she will be evaluated quarterly by U.S. Speedskating.
“My takeaway and what I conveyed to Wilma was that athletes have changed over the last 20 years, and you got a young group of athletes here, and you need to evolve the way you communicate with them and motivate them,” Morris said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to give you the resources and the tools to get better at that.”
Schoutens said the Athlete Advisory Council will continue to monitor the situation, too, checking in every three to fourth months for signs of progress.
“We recognize that if even one athlete feels like they’re experiencing inappropriate coaching, that’s one too many,” she said.
Most of the short-track athletes are now in Utah, preparing for the fall season and a final push for the Beijing Olympics. Morris held a team meeting with them Friday without Boomstra. He laid out the reform measures now in place and reiterated his support for the coach, according to two people present.
Hong was not there. He’s back home in Maryland, still sorting out his future. For now, he has no plans to resume serious training and is preparing for the fall semester at the University of Maryland.
“I’m still figuring things out,” he said. “I haven’t officially retired. But the last year was difficult. It was by far the worst I’d ever experienced. It’s something that no one should have to go through.”
Correction: A previous version of this story described Boomstra as the former coach of the national short-track speedskating team. Though U.S. Speedskating did describe Boomstra as the former coach in announcing her hire, she was actually the coach of its developmental team.