GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The Cherry Hill Campground in College Park is not generally considered an American Olympic factory. Frankly, the Cherry Hill Campground is not generally considered much at all. Its main claim to fame, according to its website, is that it is the closest campground to downtown D.C.
But for short-track speedskater John-Henry Krueger, the campsite always will be an unlikely defining spot in his Olympic trek. He, his brother and his mother stayed there a few times a week when they piled in his mother’s minivan and drove from Pittsburgh to the District to train with the short-track speedskating coaches there. Sometimes they upgraded from tents to cabins. Once they slept in the car. Once they slept in a yurt. All that — nights spent in sleeping bags, brown bag meals for days — because short-track coaches are hard to come by.
“That was something we had to do at the time. It was necessary. That was part of the sacrifice we had to make,” Krueger said. “It was worth it. Here I am at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.”
Cherry Hill was, in that way, the first step on a training-inspired odyssey that eventually took Krueger to Salt Lake City, Korea, and most recently, the Netherlands. Now 22, he is a contender in the 1,000-meter Olympics semifinals Saturday — in large part because when he and his older brother, Cole, told their parents they wanted to skate a few years ago, Bryan and Heidi Krueger realized what it would take to support the dream.
“I remember sitting around the dining room table, and [Bryan] was like, ‘Wow, what just happened?’ We got thrown out of a moving bus.” Heidi said. “ I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to become of this. How about we agree that we allow both boys to explore their full potential, whatever that is. That’s all we agreed to.”
Cole was the first to skate competitively. Heidi is a competitive figure skating coach, and all that time around the rink helped one thing lead to another. John-Henry followed.
When Cole, now 26, was still a preteen, he competed at the national competition in Milwaukee and struggled. He didn’t take it well. Heidi approached former U.S. Olympian Eric Flaim for advice. He told her the best coaches were working in D.C.
“I said to Cole, ‘Look, we’re sort of at a fork in the road here, dude,’ ” Heidi remembered from high above Gangneung Ice Arena earlier this week. “If you want to keep having fun at this, that’s great. But if you want to get serious, it’s going to require a lot more commitment — not only yourself but our family.”
Cole didn’t hesitate. John-Henry, who was about 7 then, went along for the ride. Bryan is a corporate accountant, so his schedule didn’t permit shuttling around the East Coast. Heidi could schedule around it, and for two years she drove the boys a few times a week to work with Korean coach Jimmy Jang. But D.C. hotels aren’t cheap.
“We couldn’t afford it,” Heidi said. So they camped. They started in tents and moved into cabins. They mastered the art of using hotel search engines to find last-minute rates. The $23 rate they got one night is still a source of great pride.
“You know why it wasn’t hard for me? Because I’m a competitive figure skating coach,” Heidi said. “The reality of it is, it does not matter how talented a young person is. Coaching is everything. Especially in the developmental levels.”
When John-Henry turned 16 years old, the Krueger boys headed to Salt Lake City to train with another speedskating coach, Jae Su Chun. Both Chun and Jang eventually were accused of physical and emotional abuse and other misconduct that cost Chun his position as coach of the U.S. speedskating national team. The Kruegers say they maintain a good relationship with both. Their coaching helped put John-Henry in contention to make the Olympic team in 2014 — before he got swine flu just before Olympic trials. U.S. speedskating’s selection procedure left no room for a discretionary selection.
After the near miss, Krueger headed to Korea, where he was reunited with Jang. Last year, he moved to the Netherlands, to a small town called Heerenveen. He has been training there with Coach Jeroen Otter ever since. The process has not been cheap.
If John-Henry had stayed to train in the United States, with other national team members, he would do so at low cost. But moving to South Korea, then the Netherlands, is expensive — and these days, he can’t live in a tent.
His family will be paying the bills from this year’s moves for years. They started a GoFundMe page to help. Short-track speedskating is a cruel sport in which one rogue blade or one determined elbow can ruin a medal dream in a second and render years of training moot. Krueger was penalized in the 1,500-meter competition this week and didn’t make the final. The 1,000-meter race is his last chance at a medal here.
“It’s just a short window of opportunity in your life to do this,” Bryan said. “So it was like, all right, let’s see where this can go. It’s not going to come again. We can’t do this forever.”