Figure skating abuse is not the phrase that conjures up the elegant images of prime athletes oft associated with the sport. Olympic figure skating has long been one of the most popular competitions in the Winter Games. But looking at the beautiful skaters, it can be difficult to remember that many of them are just teenagers. Over the past year, reports of sexual abuse and cover up coming out of the U.S. and France show that coaches and competitors often ignored the line between child and adult, creating situations where teen athletes couldn’t avoid becoming the victims of sexual abuse.
In June 2008, while participating in a figure skating camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at age 17, Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner woke up to find her teammate John Coughlin on top of her. He was 22 years old at the time. He kissed her neck and put his hand down her pants. At first, she describes herself as being “paralized in fear.” She laid there, pretending to be asleep and hoping he would stop. He didn’t. Eventually she gathered the courage to grab his hand and tell him to stop. Thankfully, he did.
By the next day, everyone around her, including Coughlin, was acting like nothing happened, so she did too. She told two people she was close to, but not her parents because she had been at a party, drinking alcohol. More than a decade later, she told the USA Today:
“There also was this: 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 would go on to receive a bronze medal in the 2014 Olympics and a silver medal in the 2016 World Championships, but that moment would continue to haunt her. Eventually, she reported what happened to the U.S. Center for SafeSport. Wagner’s story was one of three reports of sexual abuse against John Coughlin, who was himself an Olympic champion. The organization issued an interim suspension while it investigated the complaints. However, the next day, on January 18, 2019, Coughlin committed suicide.
Coughlin’s suicide has colored the way the sport talks about figure skating sexual abuse charges. While the U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) issued a statement emphasizing athlete safety education and awareness, its representatives have struggled to uphold that message. Mark Ladwig, an USFS representative, spoke in defense of Coughlin saying that sometimes in skating a man’s hand can slip onto a woman’s crotch during a lift. But on-ice hand placement had nothing to do with the allegations Wagner and her teammate Bridget Namiotka had raised against Coughlin.
A similar incident arose in December 2019, when the USA Today reported on an investigation into French skater Morgan Cipres, age 26. Cipres faced allegations that he had sent photos of his penis to a 13-year-old skater on the U.S. team. Gordie Zimmerman, owner of the ice rink where the two trained called the 13-year-old “dangerous”. Wagner said she had been contacted as well:
“I had people messaging me that the 13-year-old girl was instigating a lot, and I had to remind them that was basically shaming a child for something that she does not even have the brain development to be able to understand. . . . A 13-year-old is still very much a child.”
Nor can the trouble with sex abuse in figure skating be dismissed as children and young adults exploring their sexuality. Allegations have also come forward of sexual misconduct by Richard Callaghan, a long-time Olympic coach. Callaghan had worked with Tara Lipinski and Todd Eldredge in 1998. Around the same time, he was also grooming a 14 year-old boy, Craig Maurizi, according to the lawsuit Mr. Maurizi filed in the Federal District Court in Buffalo, New York, earlier this year.
Maurizi says he began taking lessons from Callaghan in 1976 at age 13. The abuse began the next year. His lawsuit says that Callaghan isolated him, offered him pornography and alcohol, and eventually had sex with him, all while Maurizi was still a minor. Maurizi said he developed a substance abuse disorder and an eating disorder as a result of Callaghan’s control and “constant” sexual abuse. The figure skating abuse and behavior continued for years -- even after Maurizi had become a figure skating coach himself.
Maurizi wasn’t alone. Last year, the U.S. Center for SafeSport permanently barred Callaghan from the sport after Adam Schmidt and three other skaters publicly accused Callaghan of sexual misconduct. However, Callaghan appealed his penalty to an independent arbitrator, who reduced it to a simple three-year suspension.
That’s not enough, Maurizi says. He filed his lawsuit under the New York Child Victims Act, naming Callaghan, U.S. Figure Skating, the Professional Skaters Association, and the Buffalo Skating Club as defendants. The lawsuit says that Callaghan’s behavior was widely known within the skating associations, but willfully ignored because of his success as a coach. Mr. Maurizi told the New York Times:
“I need for Richard Callaghan to be stopped. . . . I’m committed to stop giving him the opportunity to abuse anyone else.”
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have that same dedication to stopping sex abuse when it happens. We have a team of attorneys who know what to do in the face of sex abuse in the context of professional and teenage athletes. If you have been abused because of your participation in a sport, we will help you get the justice and compensation you need to move on. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.