Three-time U.S. national champion figure skater and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Wagner wrote in USA Today on Thursday that she was sexually assaulted by the late former pairs skater John Coughlin when she was 17 and he was 22.
Wagner, in the first-person article, writes that when she was attending a figure skating camp in Colorado in 2008, she went to a house party thrown by “some of the local athletes.” She describes this is a new experience, and the first time she ever had anything to drink. Wagner ended up spending the night at the house after nobody could drive her back to her hotel. This is when Coughlin, who had already competed in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at this point in his life, climbed into her bed and assaulted her:
It was the middle of the night when I felt him crawl into my bed. I had been sleeping and didn’t move because I didn’t understand what it meant. I thought he just wanted a place to sleep. But then he started kissing my neck. I pretended to be deep asleep, hoping he would stop. He didn’t. When his hands started to wander, when he started touching me, groping my body, I tried to shift around so that he would think I was waking up and would stop. He didn’t.
I then felt myself starting to cry, and I knew I had to make a choice. I opened my eyes and pulled away from him as he kissed my neck. I grabbed his invading hand, and I told him to stop. And he did. He looked at me for a few seconds, quietly got up and left the room. All of this happened over the period of about five minutes. That is such a small amount of time, but it’s haunted me ever since.
In the morning, Wagner writes, Coughlin acted like nothing happened, and so she did too. She told two people close to her about the assault, but otherwise kept her head down. Wagner says not only had she not been taught about consent at that age, but she was also worried about potential consequences for her own career:
I was a young skater coming up through the ranks in a judged sport. I didn’t want to stir the pot. 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. And I genuinely didn’t feel like anyone would listen to me anyway. Everyone really liked this guy. I even liked him.
Coughlin’s history of sexual misconduct didn’t become public until January 2019. He had been placed on interim suspension because of three complaints against him, and died by suicide a day later. The first of Coughlin’s victims to go public was his former skating partner Bridget Namiotka, who wrote that he abused her for two years. When the two started skating together, Namiotka was 14 and Coughlin was 19.
Wagner went on to compete for another decade after the assault, winning an Olympic medal in the team event in 2014 and a silver medal as a singles skater at the World Championships in 2016. She writes that she decided it was necessary to tell her story because, in figure skating, it’s normal for young female competitors to travel and socialize with adult male competitors. Changes need to be made to keep those young skaters safe and protected from what SafeSport has called “a culture in figure skating that allowed grooming and abuse to go unchecked for too long.”
“This year I watched a phenomenal young superstar, Alysa Liu, become the U.S. figure skating national champion at 13,” she wrote. “It was in that moment that I knew I had to come forward with my story.”