BY MERI-JO BORZILLERI
SALT LAKE CITY - The head coach for the U.S. skeleton team was suspended with pay by the sport's governing body Saturday as the U.S. Olympic Committee began investigating allegations of sexual harassment made by members of the women's team.
The coach, Tim Nardiello, has been accused of making sexual advances and sexually explicit comments to team members, including 2002 Olympic gold medalist Tristan Gale and another athlete, Felicia Canfield, according to the New York Times. They said the harassment has been going on for years, since Nardiello took over the team after the 2002 Olympics.
Canfield's husband, Brady, said Saturday that athletes did not speak up until now because they feared they might be "cut off" from coaching and training and might get kicked off the team.
"It's not just about the Games," said Brady, a member of the federation board and also a national skeleton competitor. "It's about people in control, people who have all the control, especially in a sport (that) they govern."
Nardiello, 45, and a two-time Olympian in doubles luge (1984, 1988), has been placed on administrative leave until the federation's grievance committee hearing, expected to open Monday. Nardiello did not return a call seeking comment Saturday. He has denied the accusations to the Times.
But in an e-mail to the federation board and forwarded to The Gazette and other publications, Felicia Canfield detailed examples of Nardiello's behavior.
"Many times at the start of a race, waiting for the light to turn green, Tim would look me up and down and comment how good I looked in my speed suit. He has even patted my butt. I would have preferred to focus on my race. He has tried to kiss me on the lips, but I have turned my cheek. I, along with a dozen other athletes, have heard Tim say over the radio `the only time I want to see your legs spread like that is if I am between them.'"
On Thursday, she filed a formal grievance to the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, said the paper. The federation said it could not begin its grievance procedure until someone stepped forward.
Nardiello was notified of athletes' complaints to the board in a warning letter from the federation in early December, said Dan Goodwin, federation counsel and vice president. The federation, explaining an earlier departure would be disruptive to the team before the Olympics, decided Nardiello would be asked to resign after the Games, by March1. The Olympics are Feb.10-26 in Turin, Italy.
That decision infuriated some team members, who wanted Nardiello fired immediately.
"What upset us was the note that said, `We know there are problems but we're going to hide it until after the Games,'" Brady Canfield said.
Goodwin said he hopes the three-person grievance committee will have a recommendation for the federation board and the coaching matter is settled by Wednesday or Thursday, when the team leaves for Germany.
Gale's mother, Marsha, wrote to the federation saying Nardiello had made inappropriate comments to Tristan involving Tristan's boyfriend, and engaged in an improper relationship with a skeleton athlete from another country. Tristan Gale did not return a call for comment.
Skeleton is the sport where competitors slide headfirst down a bobsled run with speeds approaching 80mph. The U.S. team won three medals, two gold medals and one silver in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake.
The issue has divided the team. The U.S. Olympic skeleton team is scheduled to be selected Jan.16 after a World Cup race in Konigsee, Germany. Katie Uhlaender of Breckenridge has qualified for the team through her World Cup standings. Courtney Yamada is the second-ranked U.S. slider. The U.S. is a long shot to try to qualify a second slider for the Olympics. Noelle Pikus-Pace is attempting a comeback from a broken leg in October.
"I'm kind of in shock," Yamada said Saturday. "I don't really believe all of what was said. The story, I think, comes at a terrible time for the U.S. team.
"I stand behind Tim. I personally think there's probably some bitter people out there that don't like how things are being done, and this is the route for them."
Yamada said she has not been a victim of harassment.
"No," she said. "Everyone knows the way Tim is, if everything has ever been said, (it has) been in context. ... He doesn't mean anything personally or sexually.
"It's his personality. I guess certain people don't understand him or how he comes across."
Uhlaender limited her comments about Nardiello, saying she does not want any distractions before the Olympics.
"Whether he's guilty or not, we'll come up with an answer and we can benefit from anything," Uhlaender said. "I know that I have the ability to get a medal at the Games and that's all I'm focusing on right now."
Members of the USOC legal department have contacted athletes and are planning on interviewing athletes and federation members starting Sunday.
"These are very serious allegations," said Darryl Seibel, USOC spokesman. "They will receive our immediate and full attention."
The USOC has the final say over which coaches work the Games. While federations nominate athletes to the Olympic team, the USOC gives final approval.
"We'll make certain that anyone who is contacted and interviewed as part of the investigation is protected and does not suffer retribution," Seibel said.