The Olympian Ashley Wagner on Thursday said an older male figure skater had sexually assaulted her when she was 17, shining another harsh light on the sport. It is one of beauty and elegance but also of extreme pressure, with athletes of different ages often placed together while under little supervision by parents or officials.
Wagner’s allegations were the second public accusation of assault against John Coughlin, who died by suicide in January. The accusations have further raised concerns that the dynamics of figure skating feed a culture in which young women are all too vulnerable.
“It’s the equivalent of a senior prom all the time,” said Debbie Varner, 58, a former skating coach.
Wagner, 28, is a three-time United States skating champion who has won medals at the Olympics and the world championships. Coughlin, a former national pairs champion, killed himself in January while facing an investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct, including inappropriate conduct involving minors.
Coughlin, 33, told USA Today shortly before he died that the accusations were “unfounded.” He had been suspended from involvement in the sport by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit organization tasked with investigating reports of sexual abuse.
Wagner’s first-person account was published Thursday in USA Today. It came as the United States Senate is seeking greater oversight of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and of the governing bodies for Olympic-related sports in the wake of a series of sexual abuse scandals. They include assaults of gymnasts by a national team doctor, Lawrence G. Nassar, who is now in prison; the accusations against Coughlin; and abuse cases in swimming and taekwondo.
U.S. Figure Skating, the sport’s national governing body, said on Thursday that it learned about potential sexual impropriety involving Coughlin on Dec. 17, when it received notice from SafeSport that Coughlin was prohibited from contacting an unnamed person. At the time, Coughlin was placed on a temporary restriction regarding his involvement in skating by SafeSport, which suspended him on Jan. 17.
John Anderson, a lawyer for U.S. Figure Skating, said the federation had taken a number of steps to keep its athletes safe. A list of people suspended or barred from the sport has been made public since about 2001. Coaches must undergo background checks. Everyone involved in the sport is required to report any witnessed or suspected abuse.
Athletes under 18 are now prohibited from living with their coaches, once a common practice among skaters, who often left home to train at ice rinks around the country, Anderson said. Coaches are also forbidden to be alone with skaters who are minors, whether at the rink or in a car to and from practice, Anderson said, and a member of figure skating’s SafeSport staff travels to all international events to monitor the American participants.
“I feel really good about the history of U.S. Figure Skating and what we’ve done as far as our athlete protections,” Anderson said. Still, he acknowledged that the effort in Olympic sports to protect athletes was an evolving process and that “obviously, Nassar put a spotlight on it. It’s a focus now.”
And skating insiders say there is plenty more work to do, especially in situations where adults and children are together extensively.
Craig Maurizi, a prominent coach who in 1999 accused his former coach of sexually abusing him, said that a number of people in skating can seem to be “perpetually 16 years old.” Though he was a friend of Coughlin’s and his wife was Coughlin’s agent, Maurizi said he welcomed Wagner’s decision to come forward.
“This culture needs to be fixed,” Maurizi said. “People need to draw a thick line between overage and underage. That line didn’t exist before.”
Wagner wrote that Coughlin, then 22, assaulted her while she slept after a party that took place during a figure skating training camp in Colorado Springs in 2008. As she slept at the home where the party took place, Wagner wrote, Coughlin climbed into her bed and began to kiss her neck and grope her. She was fearful and began to cry, she wrote. After several minutes she grabbed Coughlin’s hand and told him to stop. He did.
“All of this happened over the period of about five minutes,” Wagner wrote. “That is such a small amount of time, but it’s haunted me ever since.”
As a naïve teenager at a time before the #MeToo movement, Wagner wrote, she did not understand the meaning of consent. She also believed she might have misinterpreted what happened. And as an emerging skater, she worried about the effect of speaking up in a sport that relies on subjective judging. So she told two people close to her what had happened but, until Thursday, no one else.
“I didn’t want to stir the pot,” Wagner wrote. “I didn’t want to add anything to my career that would make me seem undesirable or dramatic. I didn’t want to be known in figure skating as the athlete who would cause trouble.”
In May, Bridget Namiotka, 29, who was Coughlin’s skating pairs partner when she was in her midteens and he was 18 to 21, became the first person to publicly say Coughlin had sexually abused her. She made the accusation in Facebook postings and in an online interview with The Kansas City Star.
“I’m sorry but John hurt at least 10 people including me,” Namiotka wrote on Facebook, without naming anyone else. “He sexually abused me for 2 years.”
While Coughlin and Namiotka trained together, they lived for a time at the home of Namiotka’s parents in West Chester, Pa. They also dated each other, which is not uncommon for pairs skaters. But Namiotka told The Kansas City Star, “He did sexually abuse me for two years. He was four years older than me.”
There are, of course, many well-adjusted competitors in skating, a sport of highly creative people who perform at the intersection of athleticism and artistry. But it also costs tens of thousands a dollars a year, and skaters often move away from home at a young age to train. The best compete around the world. And they can feel extreme pressure — internally and from parents — to chase a prize that is available to only a handful of skaters every four years: an Olympic gold medal.
Age differences between male and female pairs partners are especially common. The event involves lifting and throwing the woman high into the air. Women tend to be young while the men, who need strength to hoist their partners, tend to be older.
For Coughlin and Namiotka to be living at her parents’ house, competing in a pressured environment and having a relationship was an “accepted model” of the sport at the time, though it might seem inappropriate today, said Gabriel Ross-Nash, a former skater and a friend of Coughlin’s.
“The very formula that makes a successful pairs couple is the exact formula that is going to be a recipe for disaster in some cases or to look through the lens of today’s society a little weird,” Ross-Nash, 34, a copywriter, said.
Coughlin’s suicide and the accusations against him, Ross-Nash added, presented a “story of a culture in the early 2000s that is catching up to where we are now in the most tragic way it could have.”