The Iceman Skateth



Sometimes dreams are impossible to interpret. John Coughlin’s wasn’t.

Coughlin, the jovial Kansas Citian, was rooming with one of his skating coaches, Larry Ibarra, to save money at the United States Figure Skating Championships in San Jose.

On that day when Coughlin would skate with his new partner, Caydee Denney, he told Ibarra he had the same dream three or four times that week, as unambiguous a dream as you can have, that they would win the pairs competition.

Former pairs skating team Caitlin Yankowskas & John Coughlin at the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. photo by Michelle Harvath

As Coughlin was brushing his teeth and getting ready in the hotel, he relayed to Ibarra that he wanted to stay calm during the last lift. With his size and strength (he towers over the petite Denney by more than a foot), the lifts are some of the most visually dazzling elements in their program. Coughlin knew if the pair of them were skating well that there would be a power surge of excitement, so he would have to hold his emotions in check.

“We knew that lift was going to bring the crowd to its feet,” Coughlin says, “because I pick her up, and literally the last element is I take a lap around the rink with her and swing her out in a pretty dynamic way for the ending. And I told him that I was going to try to tune the crowd out in that one element because I didn’t want my adrenaline to get too big and have a mistake happen. It was wild, it was surreal as it was happening to actually be in the lift, be in that moment on the ice with the crowd roaring and think this is exactly what I talked about with my coach earlier in the day. I know what to do here. And then as I set her down out of that last lift, to hear the crowd erupt and realize that we’ve done it, it was fantastic.”

Swept into the performance from the outset, the fans at HP Pavilion realized what they were seeing was something great. For a pair that had only been together eight months, Coughlin and Denney looked like they had been doing this for eight years. As they embraced to the backdrop of a standing ovation, skating legend and NBC analyst Scott Hamilton exclaimed in his trademark vivacity, “What a national debut for this pair! Wow!”

Judges awarded them 189.7 points, good for first place. Another pair of challengers, Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker, had yet to skate. But their 186.07 points weren’t enough to supplant Coughlin and Denney. After those scores were announced, Coughlin gave an are-you-serious look of fleeting astonishment which turned into a whoa-it-looks-like-we-won succession of hugs. And before they knew it, they scooted over to the doyenne of Olympic sport interviews, Andrea Joyce, to talk about a championship skate. The dreams were right.

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As they were awaiting word of their scores in the kiss-and-cry nook, Coughlin wore a “Police KCMO” long-sleeved t-shirt acknowledging his dad, Mike, a sergeant with the Kansas City Police Department. Mike had been teaching at the police academy a week or two before nationals and gave the shirt to his son as a present.

“He’d given it to me in his room, and I stuck it in my skate bag and I didn’t tell him, but I thought man, if I skate well, it’ll be fun to throw this on and give a shout-out to Kansas City and for my dad,” Coughlin says.

While his dad worked at the station, Coughlin was too little to be left at home while his sister practiced skating. For her, watching the 1988 Winter Olympics with the graceful Debi Thomas and the Battle of the Brians—Boitano from the United States, Orser from Canada—sealed the interest. So off he would go with his mother, Stacy, and his sister to the old AMF Ice Chateau on 87th and Metcalf. Most skaters have youthful Olympic aspirations. But how many of them are prodded into the sport for disciplinary purposes?

“I was just kind of getting in trouble in the lobby, and my mom stuck me on the ice to keep an eye on me,” he says.

What was previously something he just liked to do as he grew up to be 5 or 6 slowly became a real skill through the years, and the ambitions shifted accordingly. Coughlin was a singles skater through the junior level, and was getting into the pairs game by then. He knew he liked jumping, a fundamental reason why he was skating singles at first.

“It was a blessing for me that I did singles so long, because the triple jumps that are required, while the lifting and throwing and all the pair elements are extremely difficult and specialized for pairs skaters, the jumps and the side-by-side triples that are required to be at the top are relatively easy for someone who was a singles skater,” he says. “So I’m blessed that I did the harder triples and can take a deep breath skating into the triples for pairs now.”

When Coughlin chose pairs full time, he had several partnerships before joining Caitlin Yankowskas at the suggestion of his coach, Delilah Sappenfield, in 2007. Four years later, Coughlin and Yankowskas broke through to win gold at nationals after finishing sixth, seventh and sixth the previous three years. But there was a void that couldn’t be filled.

In February 2010, Stacy Coughlin passed away at age 48 of a chronic respiratory illness. That routine, set to “Ave Maria,” was choreographed in his mom’s memory. There was joy in victory, but it was a wrenching, exhausting joy.

After those nationals in 2011, John Coughlin nearly hung up the skates. He had just won on a big stage, and partnering with Yankowskas was paying dividends. Yet he didn’t feel up to it, because the one person that made skating happen for him was gone.

“She was the one I shared it most closely with,” Coughlin says. “It didn’t feel right to be doing it without her anymore. And I was tired from the year of trying to be emotionally strong, skating to a program that was a tribute to her. I needed to rethink and maybe get a fresh start and a fresh approach. The memory of my mom haunted what was going on at that point.”

That spring, Coughlin and Yankowskas ended their partnership. But a new one would form.

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Caydee Denney was already living out in Colorado Springs where Coughlin would also train, and he would come in to the rink and instantly enjoy skating with her. At first Coughlin thought he might ask her to help make an audition tape for a traveling ice show. But skating with Denney, who also won gold at the 2010 U.S. championships with Jeremy Barrett before they parted ways, felt better every day. Their effervescent personalities are well-matched, and they are the ice equivalent of gym rats who love the daily practice work.

“I mean, everyone has their moments that aren’t perfect,” Coughlin says, “but I think we really enjoy each other’s company on the ice and it doesn’t feel like work. We’re doing what we want to do with who we want to do it with, and the fact that it went so well in this first season is a bonus.”

It showed immediately. It’s not often that a new pairing created by happenstance in May then wins a major competition the following January. In pairs figure skating, everything needs to be in sync, symmetrical, perfectly in sequence; like a team of veterans that wins because they’ve stuck around in football or baseball, the best in this field are the ones who have been around for a few years. When the Coughlin/Denney team traveled to scenic Nice, France, for the World Figure Skating Championships toward the end of March, the German team of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy won for the fourth time in the eight years they’ve skated.

The judges in France were privy to Coughlin and Denney’s lack of a world ranking in their first season, in a scoring system where teams have accumulated up to three years of points. They consequently skated early in the short program as the higher-ranked teams skated later. Despite their eighth-place finish, they left the World Championships optimistic. Coughlin says their performance with a score of 180.37 compared favorably to their gold at nationals and their silver medal at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held on the home turf of Colorado Springs.

“And we were pretty close, nine points off the podium in our first worlds together,” Coughlin says. “It had taken me four years to get to a world championship with my previous partner, so for Caydee and I to go there and be in the top eight in our first year was pretty incredible.”

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Preparations are underway to make the 2014 Olympic team in Russia. Coughlin admits that they may not beat the Russians or the Chinese at their game. So these are crucial offseason months to figure out exactly what theirs is, and to do it so well that the traditional favorites can’t beat them at theirs.

The 26-year-old Coughlin and 19-year-old Denney felt they left some points out on the ice at worlds on technical merit where seasoned pairs may have the upper hand. They’ll get there with more reps, and Coughlin knows they’re good at the other point-grabbing elements.

“We have one of the bigger triple twists in the world, big throws, big side-by-side jumps and difficult lifts,” he says. “I’d rather have those and have to work on some little things than be really struggling with the big-ticket items. So we feel good.”

When he’s not practicing the little things and gets to come back to Kansas City, Arthur Bryant’s barbecue invariably is Coughlin’s first stop when he leaves the airport. A huge sports fan who goes to games with his closest friend in skating, St. Joseph’s Ryan Bradley, Coughlin loves his Royals, Chiefs and Kansas Jayhawks.

“I’ve been to Allen Fieldhouse a couple times. And I don’t think there’s anything like it,” he says. “I wish they would put down a frickin’ ice rink in there and I would go skate.”

Not likely, but other walks to famed medal stands in skating certainly are for Denney and Kansas City’s national champion. Hey, they’re familiar with standing atop upscale podiums already.

“Right now,” Coughlin says, “we’re kind of on a tear. And we’re skating really well.”