Figure skater Tarah Kayne details abuse allegations against sanctioned Olympic coach

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Warning: Contains descriptions of abuse and self-harm.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport has temporarily barred U.S. Olympic pairs figure skating coach Dalilah Sappenfield from having any contact with a dozen figure skaters and from coaching other athletes without another adult present to supervise while it continues an investigation into allegations of misconduct.

Sappenfield, winner of the 2008 Professional Skaters Association/U.S. Figure Skating coach of the year award, 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.

She was 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.

One of the skaters whom Sappenfield, 50, is prohibited from contacting, 2016 U.S. pairs champion Tarah Kayne, told USA TODAY Sports about several allegations she reported to a SafeSport investigator, including one in which the coach’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, Colorado.

Tarah Kayne is shown with Danny O'Shea competing at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championship.
Tarah Kayne is shown with Danny O'Shea competing at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championship.

“She was constantly talking about sex, about who I was dating, about my sex life,” said Kayne, 28, who recently retired from competitive skating. “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.”

When asked for comment, Sappenfield texted USA TODAY Sports on Thursday night, "Thank you for reaching out to me. At this time I have no comment."

Kayne said Sappenfield called her on the phone one night in July 2019 and threatened that she would lose her partnership with Danny O’Shea, with whom she won the 2016 national title, “not because of my skill set, she said, but because of the kind of person I was,” Kayne said.

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That was the night Kayne said she cut her wrist. As she started to bleed profusely, she said she went to O’Shea’s room in the dorm to ask for help. Kayne feared a trip to the emergency room would further anger Sappenfield, so she and O’Shea used super glue to hold her skin together, Kayne said.

“In my head, I thought I was going to die,” Kayne said, “but I was afraid to go to the hospital because I didn’t want Dalilah to know about any of this.”

Over the next couple of weeks, Kayne said that she tried to hide the scar by wearing long sleeves and wrapping her wrists with athletic tape during her practice sessions with Sappenfield.

But the coach found out and instead of being concerned about her well-being, Kayne said, Sappenfield pulled her aside while on the ice in a practice session and said, abruptly, “Why don’t you just go out and (expletive) the entire men’s gymnastics team?”

Dalilah Sappenfield shown in 2009 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Dalilah Sappenfield shown in 2009 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Like Kayne, the U.S. men’s gymnastics team also was practicing and living in the Olympic Training Center.

Kayne also said that in the final months she was coached by Sappenfield, in the summer of 2020, Sappenfield forbade her from speaking on the ice, shutting her out and speaking only to O’Shea, even though they all were on the ice together, often just a few inches apart.

“She told me not to speak, that I should remain silent,” Kayne said. “This made me very tense and anxious so I would hold my hands down by my waist, cupped together, left hand over right, and I would take my right hand and dig my fingernails into my left wrist and would make myself bleed all the time. Then I would go to the bathroom to try to calm down before going back to the ice.”

Via text message, O’Shea said, “I support Tarah in every way, as I did while we were partners for nine years. Tarah is a strong woman and I am proud of her for coming forward and hope that her strength is a beacon for others. Together we chose to leave a training environment that had become unhealthy for us. I stand by Tarah, and I support SafeSport and their ongoing investigations.”

O’Shea, 30, is competing this season with a new partner and new coaches in Southern California.

Kayne said she had planned to continue skating with O’Shea through the 2022 Winter Olympic year.

“But that all changed because of Dalilah,” she said. “These awful experiences forced me out of the sport I love. Dalilah said multiple times that she wanted to end my career, and she succeeded.”

Instead, Kayne will be touring with a skating show in Europe starting in November.

Kayne’s mother, Maria Kayne, told USA TODAY Sports that she discussed all of the incidents with her daughter around the time she said they occurred. USA TODAY Sports has also reviewed photos of Kayne’s wrist taken at the time of her injury.

SafeSport opened in March 2017 to investigate and resolve allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in Olympic sports. On Sept. 3, it issued temporary measures against Sappenfield, including a no-contact directive prohibiting her from contacting in any way the dozen skaters or their immediate families, a ban on traveling with a minor athlete without other adults in the immediate travel party and a requirement that another adult must be present to directly supervise when she is coaching athletes.

Other than listing the temporary measures on its website, SafeSport would not discuss the status of its investigation of Sappenfield.

“The Center does not comment on matters to protect the integrity of the process and the parties involved,” spokesman Dan Hill said Wednesday.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Figure skater details abuse allegations against Dalilah Sappenfield