It started as three mothers wanting to do a film about the hyper-competitive world of youth sports and ended up focusing on a local youth speed skating club with a hyped coach.
Soon, Chevy Chase resident Laura DeBruce and her two co-producers found they had another storyline unfolding right in front of their cameras — the abuse allegations against South Korean Olympic champion and Potomac Speedskating Club coach Kim Dong-Sung.
DeBruce and co-producers Laura Hambleton and Sarah Patton started chronicling the stories of a few members of the club at the end of 2009, just as the rift between Kim supporters and those alleging he used corporal punishment came to a head.
Kim left the club to start his own group in Northern Virginia in the summer of 2010. In March 2011, U.S. Speedskating suspended him from coaching. Kim left for South Korea and an arbitrator upheld the ruling.
“For us, this whole story kind of blew up while we were filming,” DeBruce said. “We don’t want this to be a piece that finger points at anyone. I think any of us who have been parents with athletes, it’s interesting how sometimes you might turn a blind eye you wish you hadn’t. Some of the parents regret that they stayed too long with Coach Kim.”
“Speed Skate,” will debut on local PBS affiliate WHUT at 8 p.m. on Tuesday with encore presentations at 12 a.m. Wednesday and 4 a.m. Saturday.
DeBruce came to documentaries from the other end of the production spectrum. The longtime media lawyer wanted a shot at the creative side of things, so she started Hunt Avenue Productions with neighbor Hambleton.
They co-produced the Emmy nominated film “Pink State Politics: A New Virginia,” about the role of women in the hotly contested battle for Virginia in the 2008 presidential race.
Together with local filmmaker Sarah Patton, they started going to Potomac Speedskating practices at local ice rinks in Wheaton and Cabin John Regional Park.
“We started off wanting to do a documentary about kids in sports, sort of as a general look at what is it about having our children participate in athletics that’s sort of all-consuming,” DeBruce said.
The idea of doing a story about the D.C. area’s popular youth speed skating clubs came to the forefront. The filmmakers got to know some of the parents at Potomac and started following their kids and the charismatic coach with the Olympic pedigree.
The alleged abuse, which included the use of hockey sticks, skate-blade guards, hammers and other equipment to hit skaters on the butt, stomach and hands, happened in locker rooms and away from parents. After the charges came, many parents of Korean origin signed a letter supporting Kim.
“Was it a different way of doing things that were taken out of context?,” DeBraun said. “Was it abuse? That’s a very scary word. Or was it a culture clash?”
The film includes interviews with Kim, thought to be the only on-camera interviews the coach did before leaving for South Korea, where he again coaches.
“There were kids driving down from Philadelphia just to come skate with Coach Kim, to train with a former Olympian,” DeBraun said. “In many other sports it might be hard to see the analogy. He was definitely a big draw. There were definitely a lot of stars in the eyes.”
Alison Mittelstadt and her daughter Sophie are two of the people featured in the film. Sophie has since quit speed skating and put her time toward cycling competitions. Alison Mittelstadt remains involved with the Potomac Speedskating Club.
“At the beginning, it was all fun and games but it also showed the dark side of the story,” Mittelstadt said. “Any sport where the stakes get so high, there are often some dirty dark secrets and those are sort of displayed for all to see.”
The club sent two skaters to the 2014 U.S. Junior National Championships last weekend in Milwaukee. Laurel resident Thomas Hong finished second overall and looks to have a legitimate shot at the 2018 U.S. Olympic team. Potomac resident Shaner LeBauer, also featured in the documentary, finished sixth overall.
Mittelstadt said she hasn’t seen the documentary, but hopes for a fair portrayal of what happened. Potomac Speedskating pursued the suspension of Kim and dismissed him from the club.
With the Sochi Winter Olympics starting this week, Mittelstadt expects a surge in interest in short-track speed skating. The area’s large Korean population has contributed to making the D.C. suburbs a hotbed for the sport, with a long line of Korean coaches making the area their home.
“It’s a very niche sport and it’s a very rigorous sport. It’s not unusual for some of these kids to be training for four, five, six days a week, much like youth athletes at any level of gymnastics, figure skating or swimming,” Mittelstadt said.
The Potomac club is usually relegated to late-night practice times on limited ice space in Montgomery County, which she said makes attracting new kids difficult.
“You tell a parent of a 5-year-old that you practice at 10:15 p.m. on a Friday night and they look at you like you’re insane,” Mittelstadt said. “Apparently, some of us are.”
DeBraun said the goal of the documentary is not to make any judgements about what happened with Coach Kim, but rather to let the parents and kids tell the story of a very competitive youth sport.
“As parents, they were very open and very revealing to us about how they felt and the dilemma they faced,” DeBraun said. “It raises some very interesting questions for all those parents who have kids that are very dedicated to one particular sport.”