Spun out of control: The desperate final days of skater John Coughlin

On the Monday evening before John Coughlin was buried, a stream of friends and family walked with mournful respect into Christ the King Catholic Church to honor the life of a two-time national champion, arguably the greatest figure skater to ever come from Kansas City.

There was stifled anger beneath the grief, an overwhelming sense that this young man’s death was wrong.

Coughlin was 33.

Only six weeks earlier, he had suddenly found himself in a different kind of spotlight, the glare of scrutiny, when the U.S. Center for SafeSport — a group mandated by Congress to protect athletes from sexual misconduct and other abuse — first restricted and later suspended Coughlin from his sport pending an investigation into allegations involving three people, two of them minors.

Driven into despair, feeling unable to defend himself, the 6-foot-2 skater — known for his big body and big, warm personality — was so knocked from his moorings that on Jan. 18, he hanged himself in the Kansas City home he shared with his father.

But before he did so, Coughlin wrote a handful of final letters.

At the Jan. 28 church visitation on Wornall Road, Coughlin’s sister, Angela Laune, moved past her brother’s open casket to deliver them one by one, knowing that they contained her brother’s assurance — the same one he had given to her and their father a week before his death.

“I said to him, ‘John, is there anything here?’” Mike Coughlin, a 45-year veteran of the Kansas City Police Department, said about the accusations. “He said, ‘Dad, there’s nothing here.’”

Relatives of the late figure skater John Coughlin — his father, Mike Coughlin, and his sister, Angela Laune — spoke publicly for the first time about what they say are false accusations against him. They say he took his own life as the family struggled to gain information about the allegations and he saw his life crumbling around him. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

“John was innocent. John was innocent in all of this,” his sister, 34, insisted in a joint interview with her father on Wednesday. “The accusations were made anonymously. John had no way to defend himself. There was no due process.”

Now heaped atop the tragedy is the possibility that there may never be a clear answer as to whether one of Kansas City’s most accomplished athletes was indeed innocent, as his family steadfastly insists.

On Tuesday, Denver-based SafeSport officially declared it would cease its investigation despite coming to no conclusion regarding the allegations against Coughlin. The skater’s death, SafeSport reasoned, made further investigation pointless.

“Since the Center’s response and resolution process works to protect the sport community and other covered persons from the risks associated with sexual misconduct and abuse,” SafeSport said in a press statement, “it cannot advance an investigation when no potential threat exists.”

Coughlin’s father and sister, Laune, are appalled.

She had been the first to break the news of his suicide on Facebook: “My wonderful, strong, amazingly compassionate brother John Coughlin took his own life earlier today.”

Then, for weeks, they chose to remain silent, refusing media requests to discuss the allegations or death. They did so in the confident expectation that if SafeSport were allowed to finish its investigation, without interruption or criticism, it would conclude that the accusations were bogus.

But now, with the investigation closed, nothing prevents suspicions of sexual misconduct to follow the skater into death.

Nothing, that is, except for his family and other supporters who now insist that they are going to fight to clear Coughlin’s name, while demanding sweeping changes in the way SafeSport publicizes and handles cases.

Stephen Chasman — a figure skater, coach and friend of Coughlin’s — launched a Change.org petition after the suicide. So far more than 3,000 supporters have signed on.

“SafeSport as it operates now is clearly unconstitutional,” Chasman wrote.

Said Laune: “I think there needs to be a congressional hearing, or a congressional investigation.”

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, may already be on the verge of reforming SafeSport.

As chair of the Manufacturing, Trade and Consumer Protection Committee, his panel has for several months been looking into the treatment of amateur athletes and reporting of sexual misconduct. A Moran spokesman said Friday that a report will be completed in coming weeks.

“The Center for SafeSport should finish the investigation,” said Gerry Lane, a past president of the Professional Skaters Association who directs the South Suburban Ice Arena near Denver. “I hope they don’t wash their hands of it.”

Among many questions yet to be answered by SafeSport, Lane said: “How do you make this process better for all … without anyone committing suicide?”

In interviews last week, where Mike Coughlin and Laune struggled to choke back tears, they maintained that the suicide was not an admission of guilt.

But once the specter of a sexual misconduct investigation was made public, the news went worldwide.

Coughlin was soon cut off from coaching and all else to do with the sport he had dedicated his life to since age 4. The investigation had just begun, yet he was already being vilified on social media before SafeSport or anyone else had heard his side of the story.

“John felt like his life was crumbling around him and he had no way to escape,” Laune said.

“This was inflicted upon him,” his father said, “and left him in a place that left him hopeless.”

“I said to him, if you ever feel like it’s getting too much and doing something stupid, call me and I’ll be there,” said skater Geoff Varner of San Diego, Coughlin’s best friend for 20 years and, like him, a former world competitor. “He said, ‘No, I’m OK.’”

Coughlin killed himself that same day.

The SafeSport mandate

Judging the truth of Coughlin’s story, to be sure, has been made ever more difficult.

The U.S. Olympic Committee created SafeSport as a nonprofit in response to multiple crises. High-profile sex abuse scandals in sports such as swimming, tae kwon do and gymnastics made it clear that amateur athletes needed greater protection.

Before, some 50 “governing bodies” overseeing sports, from table tennis to track, each had their own procedures for compiling accusations and meting out penalties — if they chose to do so.

SafeSport now handles accusations from all those same sports. The organization, which began accepting reports in 2017, started off underfunded with three employees. But, with money from Congress and Olympic sports, expects this year to grow to 50 employees with a budget of $4.5 million.

“Everybody feels it’s very important to support the center,” said Max Cobb of the U.S. Biathlon Association, who chairs the council of governing bodies. “For sure, we’re all better off with SafeSport than without.”

In its first year, SafeSport staff thought they would field no more than 30 accusations of potential sexual misconduct per month. But as scandals grew, particularly in the world of gymnastics, the center fielded as many as 30 per week, taking reports not just from alleged victims, but also from third parties such as coaches, trainers, parents and other athletes.

“The Center believes that all athletes deserve to participate in sports free from any form of emotional, physical and sexual misconduct,” SafeSport says on its website.

When the organization receives an allegation it deems worthy of investigation, it moves forward, as it did with Coughlin.

Caydee Denney and John Coughlin after their pairs free skating routine at the Skate America competition in Detroit in 2013. Coughlin, who is from Kansas City, was a two-time national pairs champion. Carlos Osorio AP

SafeSport does not share details about its investigations until they are concluded. But it does post its actions on its website’s Centralized Disciplinary Database, where names of athletes, coaches and others are listed by their sport, together with the allegations against them — most are sexual misconduct — and their current disciplinary status, such as a interim restriction, suspension or permanent ineligibility.

With SafeSport guarding details to protect the privacy of potential victims, all that his family and friends know comes from what he shared, from his point of view. He would have received a letter from SafeSport detailing the general accusations. The letter would have included the initials of the purported victim.

Family and friends said Coughlin categorically denied that any of the relationships SafeSport was investigating involved sexual misconduct. Each, they said, was a “peer-to-peer” relationship from his earlier skating days, none from when he was a coach.

The first, his family and friends said, occurred when he was in his mid-20s and the skater was in her later teens, old enough to legally consent. The allegation was made by a third party, someone who reported Coughlin over suspicions that Coughlin was “grooming,” or manipulating the female skater into an intimate relationship.

But the second set of allegations involved two minors. Varner said Coughlin told him that the girls were young when he was also young; they were no more than a few years apart. Yet it was unclear how many years older Coughlin was, or whether the alleged victims were old enough to legally consent. One of the girls was someone he knew well from 14 years prior. They were still friendly and had even been in contact in recent years, Varner said.

Family and friends were unclear whether either of the girls or a third party had made the allegation.

What is clear is how angry Coughlin’s supporters are at what they view as SafeSport’s disregard for how lives can quickly be ruined when a name tied to possible sexual misconduct goes public without solid proof.

“They never should have posted it (the allegations) publicly without substantiating any of it,” Laune said. “That is where John is ‘guilty until proven innocent’ came into play.”

SafeSport explains that releasing names of athletes at the start of an investigation can help raise awareness and prompt other victims or witnesses to come forward. Unlike police, SafeSport says it cannot subpoena people or access forensic information. Its prime method of investigation is through interviews.

Chasman, the friend who launched the Change.org petition against SafeSport, told The Star that sports authorities were rightly attacked in recent years for ignoring the safety of young athletes. But now they have skating professionals fearful of being shamed before allegations are vetted.

“It’s the pendulum swinging too far the other way,” potentially ruining the rights and reputations of the accused, Chasman said.

His “reform petition” urges SafeSport to adopt “the concept of timely, civil procedure” before issuing suspensions, “the acknowledgement (sic) of statute of limitations … (and making clear) the distinction between felony and misdemeanor of charges.”

SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill acknowledged to USA Today “how the pendulum swings. One day we’re not doing enough to help victims and the next day we’re doing too much …

“Imagine the backlash if you have the allegations and you don’t do anything.”

A national champion

Coughlin was raised in Kansas City, with a mom who was a nurse and a police officer dad who took multiple jobs to help support his son’s talent. By his mid-20s, Coughlin had risen to the top of skating’s rarefied world.

Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, shown here competing in 2010, went on to win the U.S. pairs championship the following year. AP

In 2011, the Center High School alum brought skating fans to their feet when, with partner Caitlin Yankowskas, he won the U.S. title in pairs skating at 25. His mother, Stacy, had died a year earlier of a respiratory illness at age 48. Their program, skated to the music of “Ave Maria,” was dedicated to her. Then, in 2012, with partner Caydee Denney, Coughlin won again.

A towering figuring on the ice, he was widely beloved.

“I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like John,” his friend Varner said. “He was very funny. All we did together was laugh and make jokes. … When you first meet him, he is very interested in you. He’s very genuine. He never really liked to talk about himself. He wanted to get to know you. Even if he met you just one time, he would remember. He would ask you, ‘OK, how’s your mom doing?’ if you’d brought up your parents. He’d remember your conversation. I think that was a very important part of him: It was never really about him.”

Retired for the past three years, Coughlin had pieced together a life around skating, working as a television commentator. He coached. He ran children’s skating seminars with friend and Olympic bronze medalist Gracie Gold of Missouri. He was deeply involved in U.S. Figure Skating committees, was chair of International Skating Union’s Athletes Commission and had become a representative for John Wilson Skates.

Olympic bronze medalist Gracie Gold (left) and former U.S. pairs champion John Coughlin discussed spin techniques with participants at the two-day Road to Gold Training Camp last year at the Line Creek Ice Arena. Organized by Coughlin, the clinic offered participants the chance to learn championship-level practices and techniques. Anne Marie Hunter Special to The Star

Like many elite athletes, for the bulk of his life, friends and identity revolved around his sport.

Then on Dec. 17, SafeSport’s interim restriction sent him reeling.

For SafeSport, the restriction can be triggered after the group receives an allegation of sexual or other misconduct coming from what it judges to be a credible source.

A restriction doesn’t keep athletes from participating in their sport. But it can mean they are restricted from having any contact with the purported victim — as a precaution, in the interim, until SafeSport concludes its investigation.

Initially, Coughlin dealt with it, his family and friends said, followed the rules, certain that SafeSport’s work would quickly determine the allegation was unfounded.

“You know, we spoke every day. I called him every day. We texted every day,” Varner said of the entire tragedy. “When he first got the accusation — he had received the formal letter in the mail — I don’t want to say he was OK with it; he was confident that through this new system of SafeSport that the truth would come out and it would be dropped. … We just talked about the situation and thought there was nothing that could come about it.”

The holidays passed. Before the accusation was resolved, the situation ignited: On Jan. 7, USA Today broke the story, “Figure Skating two-time U.S. champion restricted by SafeSport.” The story went global.

Coughlin would soon look online and see himself being called a creep and a pedophile. Feeling hamstrung and silenced by SafeSport’s restrictions, he offered USA Today a prepared statement in defense.

“While I wish I could speak freely about the unfounded allegations levied against me,” he said, “SafeSport rules prevent me from doing so since the case remains pending. 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.”

It was too late.

‘Weaponized’ accusations

Coughlin’s name was now linked in stories around the world to an investigation of “sexual misconduct,” or “other types of abuse,” words both vague and specific enough to leave what it all meant to the public imagination.

Did it involve a boy or girl, an adult or child? SafeSport doesn’t reveal details, so it was unclear who was accusing Coughlin, or what period of his skating life it involved. Was it from the distant past or the present? Did it relate to him as a coach or from the time he was a young competitor? Even the nature of the allegation was unclear, as it could possibly have involved any number of matters SafeSport examines, from bullying to sexual assault.

SafeSport spokesman Hill said he could not speak specifically about Coughlin. But as general background, he said, the organization is well aware of how accusations can too easily be “weaponized,” used unfairly to destroy a life and reputation. He said SafeSport, when considering taking on an investigation, aims never to be used in that way.

But lacking any other explanation, Coughlin’s family came to believe that’s exactly what happened.

“SafeSport was used as a weapon,” Laune said. In the highly competitive world of amateur sports, they think the accusation came from a jealous rival whom they refused to name, but whom they believe wanted to conjure the specter of a sexual accusation to hobble Coughlin’s career in coaching and television commentary.

“These accusations,” Laune said, “were made out of malicious intent from someone in the background twisting people’s perception of my brother.”

Mike Coughlin said that at his son’s Jan. 29 funeral, coaches and athletes approached him voicing a similar concern. “They said, ‘If this can happen to John Coughlin, it can happen to anyone.’”

In January, Coughlin, encouraged at first that his name would be quickly cleared, steadily grew depressed.

His friends and family could see it. Coughlin was often one to put on a happy or strong front to put others at ease. But his loved ones sensed he was spiraling.

“John was this vibrant, in his prime, athletic, healthy soul,” his sister said. “I watched his demeanor change after all of this. There was this weight he was carrying around. It was so heavy.”

SafeSport notes that when athletes receive letters saying they are under investigation, they also are sent policies that tell them that an investigator will be in touch to get their side of the story, and that they have the right at any time to contact an investigator. Athletes also have the right to ask for an official hearing before an arbitrator, which SafeSport will grant within 72 hours.

It is unclear whether Coughlin was aware of these rights, but his family and friends said he did not speak to an investigator.

“You know,” Varner said, “John, growing up, we got along so well because we felt that if we didn’t win a gold medal, if we didn’t go to the Olympics, as long as we stayed humble and we had a character and a good reputation, that was enough for us.

“As soon as that headline went out, I didn’t read a lot of the comments, but I know that there were people saying, like, ‘Oh, another pedophile.’ I feel that as soon as that was presented in the wrong way, he felt like everything he worked his whole life for, everything he devoted this life to, was crumbling underneath him — true or not true.”

Varner and other worried friends, like Amy Fankhauser, the director of skating at Line Creek Ice Arena in Kansas City who’d known Coughlin for years, sensed his deepening mood.

“I was in contact with him daily,” Fankhauser said. “I was concerned. John was always the bright spot of the rink, always smiling. Everybody was always just happy to see him when they knew John was going to be there. It was going to be a good day.”

Working to raise his spirits, she invited Coughlin to the rink, a friendly world that would show how much support he had. Students and parents there idolized him. Since his death, they have been “devastated because they loved him,” Fankhauser said. She knew how kindly they’d treat him if he visited.

“He didn’t want to,” Fankhauser said. “He just wasn’t comfortable. He said he knew people knew about the accusations and it hurt him. Even when I told him, ‘Everyone here supports you,’ he still felt uncomfortable. He was worried. … He was struggling. He was concerned what this would do to his career.

“If I was in that position, I would feel the same: Everyone you know, everyone you work with, everyone that is a part of your life, people you don’t even know are now judging you.”

Coughlin’s mother had been a mental health nurse. Mike Coughlin even now works with the Kansas City Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team that deals with mental illness. His son, he said, had no history of previous depression or mental illness.

“One time, probably that last time I saw him in the rink,” Fankhauser said, “he said, ‘It’s getting really hard to be that happy John person that everybody expects.’”

Loved ones urged him to seek counseling. He seemed amenable.

More allegations

With his career and reputation hanging in the balance, Coughlin and his family remained frustrated that they had no idea what the investigation was showing, or when it might end.

Then, on Thursday, Jan. 17, SafeSport raised Coughlin’s status from an interim restriction to a more severe interim suspension, pending what SafeSport said was an investigation into more allegations.

The suspension laid him flat. No interaction with athletes. No more coaching children. No more skating clinics.

The SafeSport suspension did not mention the details, but USA Today would later report that the allegations involved two female minors. Coughlin’s family and friends said that to their knowledge, those relationships were consensual from long ago, and, in fact, he continued to believe he remained on good terms with the women.

Again, word would go worldwide. SafeSport directed the Professional Skaters Association’s to send out an email blast alerting thousands of ice skating coaches, trainers and performers that a two-time national pairs champion was “prohibited from participating, in any capacity, in any activity or competition” sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee or skating’s governing bodies.

No one knows exactly what was going through Coughlin’s head then. But friends say that email was the final blow.

Coughlin hanged himself the next day.

“I talked to him on Friday, the Friday morning he took his life,” Varner said. “I probably talked to him an hour before. I said to him, ‘John, you know the situation. You know you did nothing wrong. It’s terrible that it’s been presented this way. But you have to see it through.’”

It was then that Varner told him to call him immediately if it all seemed too overwhelming, and and he was thinking of “doing anything stupid.”

Varner tried to encourage him.

“And I also said to him,” Varner said, “If they’re adding things to the list that are completely ridiculous, you should feel confident. They were almost trying to add, add, add because they knew nothing was going to stick.”

Mike Coughlin found his son dead not long after.

Father and sister are raw with emotions. They tried often but failed to stop the tears when talking about their son and brother. Mike Coughlin said it is hard to even speak of his son in the past tense.

“My dog goes to his room,” he said, “looking for him still.”

Weeks before her brother died, Laune joined him on the ice. She feels grateful for the memory.

“He tied my skates for me,” she said.

She and her father remain convinced: If SafeSport investigators possessed any definitive evidence of wrongdoing, they would have rushed to reveal it in the face of his suicide. SafeSport shut down the investigation instead of finishing, his family believes, because officials had found nothing.

Laune teared; her voice broke.

“He was so kind and caring to us,” she said. “We just want to do right by him by getting all this cleared up.”

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Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.