Ashley Wagner, the most decorated U.S. female skater of her era as a three-time national champion and winner of a team bronze medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics, became the latest female athlete to talk about having been sexually assaulted.
Saying she wants “kids to be able to stay kids” in figure skating, Wagner told USA Today that in 2008, when she was 17, John Coughlin, who was 22 at the time, got into her bed as she slept in a home where a party had taken place and sexually assaulted her until she told him to stop.
Wagner, 28, is the highest-profile skater to make a public allegation of sexual assault in her sport and is the second top skater to publicly accuse Coughlin, a two-time U.S. pairs champion who died by suicide Jan. 18, the day after the U.S. Center for SafeSport gave him an interim suspension. In May, Bridget Namiotka, his pairs teammate from 2004 to 2007, accused Coughlin of sexually abusing her for two years when she was between the ages of 14 and 17; he was four years older. USA Today reported in January that SafeSport had received three allegations of sexual assault by Coughlin, but his death ended the investigation and SafeSport said it would not be reopened. According to USA Today, Wagner’s allegation was not one of those three cases.
Coughlin’s agent, Tara Modlin, told USA Today in January that the investigation was “unfounded.”
Wagner, who no longer skates competitively, credited the #MeToo movement and Coughlin’s suspension as her reasons for coming forward now after “completely blocking out” the alleged assault, during which she said, “I was absolutely paralyzed in fear.” As she explained in a first-person article written for USA Today, she did not come forward immediately partly because “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.”
Wagner said she was at a house party while attending U.S. camp in Colorado Springs in June 2008 when the assault occurred. She had no ride back to the hotel, according to her account, so she and other girls found beds in the house and went to sleep.
“It was the middle of the night when I felt him crawl into my bed,” she wrote in the piece. “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."
She alleged that he continued to grope and kiss her until she “started to get scared because he was so much bigger than I was, and I didn’t know if I could push him off. I just continued to lie there pretending to be asleep, hoping that he would get bored and go somewhere else. 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.”
Wagner and Coughlin “acted like nothing happened” the next morning and went on to compete on the same U.S. teams. They never talked about what happened, Wagner said, and he never offered an apology.
“I thought that maybe I had misinterpreted it all,” she wrote. “In 2008, I didn’t have the knowledge and empowerment that came with the #MeToo movement. No one had explained consent to me. Something that was so ambiguous then is very clear now.”
Wagner has previously been outspoken about a number of issues. Before the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, she criticized the country’s legislation banning what the government deemed gay propaganda, and she has questioned skating’s judging system.
“I’m known to speak my mind,” she told USA Today’s Christine Brennan this week. “I’m a strong woman. I’m an opinionated woman. I think it’s important for people to see that things like this can happen to anybody. I’m tough as nails, but something this horrifying still happened to me. It’s not enough for me to be a strong woman to make things like this not happen. If I’m going to be putting a problem out there into the universe, I want to be able to put a problem out there but also do something about it.”