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US Olympic pairs figure skating coach Dalilah Sappenfield banned for life for misconduct



Warning: Contains descriptions of abuse and self-harm.

U.S. Olympic pairs figure skating coach Dalilah Sappenfield, under investigation for 2½ years, was banned for life Wednesday afternoon by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for violations including physical and emotional misconduct, retaliation, abuse of process and failure to report a potential SafeSport violation. 

“Culture change is happening,” SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colon said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports after Sappenfield’s permanent ineligibility was announced on the SafeSport Centralized Disciplinary Database. 

“Actions that were once tolerated or ignored are no longer accepted, and accountability is taking root,” she said. “That’s progress but creating long-term culture change requires steadfast commitment by everyone in the sport community to fostering safe environments for athletes to fulfill their potential. Those who cling to toxic tactics will be left behind and on the wrong side of history.”

Sappenfield did not immediately reply to a text message from USA TODAY Sports after her punishment was announced. She has the right to appeal the lifetime ban.

On Sept. 3, 2021, SafeSport issued temporary measures against Sappenfield, including a directive prohibiting her from having any contact with a dozen skaters involved in the investigation and a requirement that another adult must be present to directly supervise her when she was coaching. The allegations against Sappenfield included verbal abuse that led 2016 U.S. national pairs champion Tarah Kayne to cut her wrist with a razor blade

Kayne told USA TODAY Sports in October 2021 about several incidents she reported to a SafeSport investigator, including one in which Kayne alleged Sappenfield’s constant verbal abuse, filled with sexual comments, led her to cut her left wrist with a razor blade in the summer of 2019 in her dorm room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“She was constantly talking about sex, about who I was dating, about my sex life,” said Kayne, who retired from skating and became a coach in Canada. “It was completely inappropriate, but that’s what Dalilah does. She uses gossip from other skaters in the rink against you. She knew I was struggling with my mental health, but instead of helping me, she chose to make fun of me. She even went to other skaters and told them about it, calling me names and asking the guys why anyone would want to date me.”

In a separate incident, Mitch Moyer, then-U.S. Figure Skating’s senior director of athlete high performance, directed an operation to remove a 16-year-old female Russian pairs skater from Sappenfield’s home in the fall of 2020, according to three people with direct knowledge of Moyer’s action who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter. 

It is a violation of the USFS SafeSport program handbook for a coach to be housing a minor athlete. Two other skaters were living at Sappenfield’s Colorado Springs house at the same time as the Russian skater, both of them males over the age of 18. 

Moyer reported Sappenfield’s living situation to SafeSport, according to two of the people with knowledge of the situation. 

Asked by USA TODAY Sports in November 2021 about the USFS action, Sappenfield texted, “Thank you for reaching out to me. At this time I have no comment.”

Sappenfield is well known in skating circles as the coach and good friend of John Coughlin, the two-time national pairs champion who died by suicide at 33 on Jan. 18, 2019, one day after he received an interim suspension from SafeSport due to three allegations of sexual abuse. 

Sappenfield vigorously defended Coughlin on social media after his death. USA TODAY Sports has reported that there were three reports of sexual assault against Coughlin, two of them involving minors. 

Three-time U.S. women’s champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Ashley Wagner told USA TODAY Sports on August 1, 2019 that Coughlin sexually assaulted her in June 2008 when she was 17. Wagner’s case is separate from those three reports. 

Sappenfield has been a fixture in U.S. pairs skating for nearly two decades. The winner of the 2008 Professional Skaters Association/U.S. Figure Skating coach of the year award, she coached three-time national champions Alexa and Chris Knierim at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where they finished 15th in the pairs competition and won a team bronze medal.

Despite the temporary SafeSport measures, Sappenfield appeared at the 2024 U.S. figure skating championships in Columbus in January, standing by the boards coaching a pairs team, still free to do her job at the top level of the sport. 

“I’m here for my skaters,” she told USA TODAY Sports as she walked away from the ice and through the media interview area. 

Asked specifically about the SafeSport measures that were still in place, she said, “I think that’s very public.”

Sappenfield was allowed to be at the national championships and coach a pairs team because SafeSport was still working on her case more than two years after it began.

Further lengthening the process was an appeal filed by Sappenfield of her temporary measures. On Jan. 5, 2023, an arbitration hearing took place and the arbitrator upheld the temporary measures imposed on Sappenfield. 

While she was coaching at the recent national championships, Sappenfield’s temporary measures still existed, U.S. Figure Skating said.

“Dalilah Sappenfield is coaching at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships under restrictions placed on her by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which has jurisdiction of her case,” USFS said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “In cooperation with the Center, U.S. Figure Skating continues to monitor Sappenfield.”

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