Ashley Wagner hopes to 'protect the childhood' for next generation of figure skaters

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After retiring from competitive skating, Olympian Ashley Wagner wants to be involved in bringing structural changes to U.S. Figure Skating.

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The first time Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner knew she wanted to come forward with her story of sexual assault was the night 13-year-old Alysa Liu won the 2019 U.S. national championship. She watched Liu on TV and remembered thinking to herself, "That 13-year-old girl does not deserve to go through the world the way I did."

At that point, Wagner, now 28, had never met Liu. They've since toured together and will be competing for Team Americas at the Aurora Games on Saturday. And in the last year, Wagner has had time to realize something incredibly important: Liu is 13, truly a child. She took on the role of a big sister, telling her where the locker room is and how long she had until she had to get to the rink for her performance.

"In elite levels -- not just in figure skating, but sports in general -- these federations see talent and they do everything to protect the talent but nothing to protect the childhood," Wagner said during a conversation with ESPN. "These federations only deal with athletes until retirement, but after that, what are they doing for these athletes? If you've taken away a person's childhood after they're done with their sport, what do they have left?"

Since she told USA Today Sports that she was sexually assaulted by John Coughlin, a fellow figure skater who died by suicide after he was under investigation for multiple sex crimes, U.S. Figure Skating has already imposed changes. Before, judges and panelists would double up as chaperones on tour, and athletes were never comfortable enough to open up to them because of their position of power, Wagner has said in the past. Now, the chaperones on tour are trained professionals.

Education is the best way to bring about structural changes in figure skating, Wagner said.

"You have athletes who are uneducated about consent and appropriate physical relationships -- appropriate relationships in general -- and this problem is going to continue to exist," she said. "If you educate your athletes and also give them options and actions that they can take when they see something wrong or experience something wrong, that empowers the next generation of athletes to watch out for each other. That's going to be a huge part of changing the culture in my sport, is empowering the athletes first."

When Wagner came forward with her story, she predicted 60% of the population would be positive, she said she has found that 99.99% of people have been positive. Since revealing her story, she says she has received more than 1,000 messages of people telling her, "I believe you," "I am sorry," and "This has happened to me -- thank you for giving me the courage to speak up."

Wagner says she is still trying to figure out what comes next for her after her retirement from competitive figure skating, but she wants to be involved with the "movement" and help bring about structural changes in figure skating.

Among the reasons why she wants to effect change, she points to Liu, who broke onto the scene in 2018 when she became the youngest skater to land a triple axel in international competition en route to the Asian Open trophy.

Since then, Liu won the 2018 U.S. junior championship and 2019 nationals, and has been called a prodigy by several figure skaters.

In Wagner's eyes, Liu can be incredibly talented and amazing at what she does and still be a kid. That, to her, is the dream.

"[This has] made me hopeful to see that a conversation does do something. Talking about something horrible that happened and normalizing it does actively do something and it does actively help," she said.

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