John Coughlin’s suicide leaves despair for fans and alleged victims
US figure skating personality had been accused of sexual offences against minors
Caydee Denney and John Coughlin skate in the pairs short program during the 2014 US Figure Skating Championships. Coughlin took his own life last week after allegations of sexual misconduct. Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
John Coughlin, a two-time national pairs champion, was scheduled to work as a commentator at the US Figure Skating Championships that begin in Detroit this week. Last Thursday, he learned that he was temporarily suspended from the sport and prohibited from attending any event while investigations continued into allegations of sexual misconduct against him, two of which reportedly involve minors. On Friday evening last, Coughlin took his own life at his home in Kansas City. He was 33.
The circumstances of his death cast a shadow over figure skating during its flagship week on the calendar, dividing the sport into those who believe him and those who believe his accusers. His friends, and he was a very popular figure on that scene, regard his passing as the vile consequence of, as yet, unproven accusations unnecessarily being made public. His family issued a statement describing him as “a champion on and off the ice” during what they consider a life “well-lived”. Dalilah Sappenfield, his coach for more than two decades, talked of a man pushed over the edge, and started a GoFundMe page to pay for the funeral costs that within hours had raised more than $25,000 in pledges.
“He was a person who was talented, had an incredible laugh & would go out of his way to cheer someone up,” tweeted Johnny Weir, the voice and the television face of the sport here. “His kindness is something I’ll never forget and his light will be missed.”
Similar eulogies could be found all across social media from figure skating luminaries, former rivals, partners, and those whose lives he had impacted positively. It was a remarkable and troubling outpouring of love and affection given the fact an initial complaint about him back in December had prompted an investigation that quickly yielded two more cases involving under-age victims. And, as many online commentators not involved in the sport are pointing out, his suicide, while undeniably tragic, cannot and should not be regarded as some sort of posthumous proof of innocence.
“While I wish I could speak freely about the unfounded allegations levied against me, the SafeSport rules prevent me from doing so since the case remains pending,” said Coughlin in a statement when the story first broke. “I note only that the SafeSport notice of allegation itself stated that an allegation in no way constitutes a finding by SafeSport or that there is any merit to the allegation.”
SafeSport is an independent body created by the United States Olympic Committee in March, 2017, following a slew of abuse scandals that rocked swimming and gymnastics at the highest levels. Its brief is to investigate any allegations of misconduct against coaches, officials or athletes. Congress felt a separate organisation was required because both those sports had disgraced themselves in their institutional and repeated failures to properly act upon complaints against serial offenders in their own ranks.
Some might say the way in which so many doyens of figure skating have been quick to rally around Coughlin, in what seems almost like an orchestrated attempt to preserve his memory and rewrite the history, offers further evidence why SafeSport was so badly needed in the first place. Bizarrely, SafeSport have intimated that the investigation may be halted by his death because he no longer represents a threat to the safety of others. Of course, that would fail to do justice to either his name, the accusations made by his alleged victims, and the wider concerns that there might be a systemic problem within the sport.
Coughlin grew up in Kansas City where, at the age of five, he tagged along to his older sister’s ice-skating training and discovered his passion. The son of a cop, a couple of years ago, he got an enormous tattoo across his back of St. Michael, the patron saint of police officers. It was a homage to his late mother who used to pray to him all the time for the safe return of her husband from every shift. In the straight-laced world of figure skating, it was also the kind of quirk that made him one of the more interesting characters on the circuit, routinely described in profiles as “a goofball”.
On the way to winning US pairs’ titles in 2011 and 2012, and managing a sixth in the world championships, he also gained a reputation for looking out for his female partners on the ice. His mother used to boast that he would take an injury himself rather than risk somebody else getting hurt during a dangerous lift. When he was based in Colorado Springs, where he worked at the reception desk in the Olympic Training Center, he partnered with Caitlin Yankowskas. In one interview, she described him as her “protector” and compared him to a “German shepherd” because of how he looked out for her.
Although he never made it to the Olympics, he was respected by his peers. After retiring from competition, aside from his commentary work, he was chair of the International Skating Union’s (ISU) Athletes’ Commission, served on the ISU Technical Committee for Singles & Pairs Skating, and became US brand manager for John Wilson skates, a role he relinquished following the initial allegation.
In a profile some years back, ESPN described Coughlin as the owner of a “pied-piper personality, someone younger skaters follow around with adoration.” A compliment then. Not anymore.