"Something that was so ambiguous then is very clear now," Ashley Wagner wrote this week, "I was sexually assaulted"
Olympic figure skating medalist Ashley Wagner said this week that she was sexually assaulted at age 17 by the late John Coughlin, a fellow figure skater who killed himself earlier this year after he was suspended from the sport amid an investigation into alleged misconduct.
Wagner’s is reportedly the fourth sexual assault accusation against Coughlin.
She shared her story in a first-person essay published Thursday by USA Today, writing that he assaulted her in 2008 when she and the then-22-year-old Coughlin were in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a figure skating camp. The 2014 Olympic bronze medalist said that Coughlin groped and kissed her while she was asleep in bed after a party.
“It was the middle of the night when I felt him crawl into my bed,” Wagner, now 28, wrote in USA Today. “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.”
Wagner wrote that she felt helpless because of their size difference.
“When he continued to wander further over my body, I started to get scared because he was so much bigger than I was, and I didn’t know if I could push him off,” she wrote.
Wagner started to cry, opened her eyes and pulled Coughlin’s hand away, telling him to stop, she wrote.
“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,” she wrote.
Wagner wrote that she told just two people about what happened, one of whom USA Today spoke with to confirm her story, but she didn’t fully understand the incident at the time.
She and Coughlin “both moved forward, never acknowledging what he did to me,” 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,” she wrote. “Something that was so ambiguous then is very clear now. I was sexually assaulted.”
In a statement to PEOPLE, U.S. Figure Skating supported Wagner speaking out.
“What happened to Ashley should not happen to anyone, period,” spokeswoman Barbara Reichert said. “Ashley is incredibly strong; not just to have the courage to come forward with her story, but to share her experience publicly to help others. Ashley recently spoke at U.S. Figure Skating athlete safety seminars and her experience and message of empowerment had a profound impact on skaters and their parents.”
Reichert continued: “Ashley’s perspective has helped us expand the scope of our athlete safety initiatives and education and words cannot express how much we appreciate her sharing her story with our members.”
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SafeSport, a watchdog organization for U.S. sports, had received three allegations of sexual assault against Coughlin at that point, including one from his longtime skating partner Bridget Namiotka.
“I’m sorry but John hurt at least 10 people including me,” Namiotka, who skated with Coughlin from ages 14 to 17, while he was 18 to 21, wrote on Facebook. “He sexually abused me for 2 years. Nobody innocent hangs themself [sic].”
Coughlin said on Jan. 7 — 11 days before his death — that the accusations were “unfounded.”
Wagner, who retired from competitive figure skating this year, shared her story with U.S. Figure Skating officials in February and is now working with them on improving athlete safety and wellness. “I do not see myself as a victim, and I never want anyone else to think of me that way,” she wrote.
She felt compelled to speak out after watching Alysa Liu, who is 13, win the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships this year, she wrote.
“It was in that moment that I knew I had to come forward with my story. I want to make this sport safer for those kids,” she wrote. “… Talent and ability — not age — place you into your social circle. It is not normal for kids and teenagers to be in the same social environment as adults. But in figure skating, it happens all the time.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to online.rainn.org.