Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner wrote a powerful essay for USA Today saying that she was sexually assaulted by John Coughlin, a fellow Olympic figure skater who died by suicide in January. The assault happened at a skating camp in 2008 when Wagner was 17 and Coughlin was 22, she says.
Wagner describes being at a house party where she drank alcohol for the first time. She had to sleep over because no one could drive her to her hotel. While asleep, she says Coughlin came into her bed and started kissing her neck. "I pretended to be deep asleep, hoping he would stop," Wagner says. "He didn’t." Coughlin then groped her body, and she continued to pretend to be sleeping, but she couldn’t hide her tears. "I opened my eyes and pulled away from him as he kissed my neck," she says. "I grabbed his invading hand, and I told him to stop. And he did."
After the assault, Wagner says that she didn't tell anyone what had happened, and Coughlin didn't mention it either. She says she was nervous to tell her parents because she worried they would punish her for being at a party. And she also worried how speaking up would impact her standing in the larger skating community. "I was a young skater coming up through the ranks in a judged sport," she says. "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."
Looking back, Wagner writes that she realizes she didn't have the vocabulary to call the assault what it was. Witnessing the #MeToo movement, and seeing other athletes come forward about their experiences, changed things. "No one had explained consent to me," she recalls. "Something that was so ambiguous then is very clear now." Wagner says she had a difficult time deciding whether or not to speak out publicly and name Coughlin given his recent death. In May of this year, Coughlin's ex skating partner said that he sexually abused her for two years. (Coughlin, who was being investigated by SafeSport and U.S. Figure Skating for allegations of sexual misconduct at the time of his death, maintained his innocence.)
"He never apologized, and I never asked for an apology," Wagner says now. "We both moved forward, never acknowledging what he did to me."
Nowadays, working with young hopeful athletes solidified Wagner's decision to speak up in hopes that there can be systemic changes that allow kids to feel safe and protected in their sports. Recently, she proposed new changes to athlete education and wellness to US Figure Skating."This is about the environment that allowed for that act to happen," she says. "I want the issue to feel real to people, and for them to understand the dynamics of my sport, where uncomfortable power imbalances thrive to this day."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).