Ashley Wagner, retired figure skater and two-time Olympic medalist, has written an op-ed for USA Today detailing her sexual assault at the age of 17; she names her assaulter as John Coughlin, a then-22-year-old figure skater who died by suicide early this year. “Over the past few months, as I decided to tell this story, I wrestled with using John’s name,” she writes. “He was a prominent figure skater who died by suicide in January, and so I fully understand the issues with naming him. But a name can shape so much of how my story is perceived. Without it, I know people will question my credibility.”
Wagner describes an incident in 2008, when she was an aspiring Olympian attending a figure skating camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After attending a party—her first ever, as she was a teen who was “hyper-focused on skating”—she says she had “drifted off to sleep” when she felt someone crawl into her bed and begin kissing and groping her. Wagner says she pretended to be asleep, hoping he would go away, but he continued the assault:
Looking back now, I didn’t understand that his hands knew the way around a woman’s body because he was 22. He was a man. But I was just a girl. 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. 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.
In the aftermath, Wagner says she told two friends about the incident, but was worried about how telling her parents might get her in trouble, and that she thought speaking on it more publicly might reflect poorly on her—an unfortunately all-too-common fear for those who’ve been sexually assaulted:
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 says that she has decided to come forward now because she wants to “push forward and demand change in a sport that I love”; she details the “environment” in which young athletes are regularly consorting with adults, and writes that 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.”
Wagner’s op-ed illuminates several important points that are still just coming into mainstream consciousness: that girls and teens are not “underage women”; that powerful institutions are still not doing enough to protect the vulnerable across the board; and that these same powerful institutions, if not party to a cover-up, still perpetuate a culture in which survivors fear that speaking out will bring harm to their own reputation. By taking control of her own narrative, Wagner has fulfilled her expressed desire to challenge these systems. “I do not see myself as a victim,” she writes, “and I never want anyone else to think of me that way.”
Read her full op-ed here.