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John Coughlin fights tragedy on ice

1/28/2011 - Olympic Sports

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Of the multiple adjectives that come to mind when describing John Coughlin -- and yes, "pleasantly goofy" would be one of them -- the one that may fit best is actually "protective."

Could there be a more admirable description for the male half of a pairs figure skating team?

"On a lift, John would never let a girl fall," his mother, Stacy Coughlin, once said. "He'd take any injury to himself to keep her from getting hurt."

She always seemed to be beaming when talking about John, and you could understand why. He was that kind of son: grinning and innocently mischievous, but, deep-down, gentle in spirit while fiercely committed to a sport that demands absurd patience.

Even the overnight success stories in figure skating already have put in years of training. For the vast majority of those competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, it's like climbing a mountain without knowing its height.

You might backslide, find your chosen route won't work or be forced to bivouac for a while when conditions get inhospitable. And when it starts to clear, you decide if you want to keep climbing.

Coughlin, who turned 25 in December, has been through all of that. Thus far, he's always chosen to keep climbing, even when coping with what's been his worst storm.

Stacy Coughlin, who's belief in her son's talent sometimes carried both of them, passed away at age 48 after a chronic illness on Feb. 24. John Coughlin hopes to face the one-year anniversary of her death with something special in hand: an appearance on the podium at the national championships.

He and partner Caitlin Yankowskas, 20, are in first place after Thursday's short program, with a score of 64.30. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladweg are second (62.87), and Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker are third (58.10).

"I like it. I like being chased, and not chasing," Coughlin said. "I think everybody prefers to be in the lead. But the second two-thirds of the competition counts for a lot, as everybody knows."

Yankowskas and Coughlin, who are coached by Dalilah Sappenfield, will perform to "Ave Maria" in Saturday's free skate. The program will tap into what are still some raw emotions for Coughlin.

"I've told people I've been knocked down in about every way a person can be knocked down," he said. "Caitlin and Delilah were very encouraging to me to take on that 'Ave Maria' program. Dalilah especially said it would be very therapeutic for me to face some of that stuff on the ice every day. Because the natural thing is to block it all out and go a completely different direction.

"It was very rocky there at first, but that's also what's making our program special this year. The feelings we are portraying are very genuine and close to home for us."

Their short program originally was to be to music from "Doctor Zhivago." But Sappenfield opted for something more upbeat.

"Who knew that she could bring a tango out of somebody who looks like me?" Coughlin quipped.

That is vintage Coughlin, a wise guy who loves the humor of Will Farrell and has that pied-piper personality, someone younger skaters follow around with adoration. A native of Kansas City, Mo., Coughlin now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., and works at the Olympic Training Center. When he's at the front desk, those who come in know he must be an athlete, but are always stumped in trying to figure out what he does.

"I get stuff like water polo, weightlifting and wrestling," the 6-foot-2 Coughlin said. "I always say, 'If anyone guesses my sport, I'll give you a prize.' No one ever does."

Coughlin started at a rink in greater Kansas City at age 5 as the classic skating tag-along: His older sister did it, so he tried it. But it really stuck for him.

He was always a big, strong kid. His dad was a veteran Kansas City police officer who still works part-time and teaches at the police academy. John loved to play baseball and, from a physical standpoint, looked just as likely to be chasing a puck around a rink as doing a double axel.

But he had a natural showman side that worked in skating. He skated singles for a while, but the protective and collaborative aspects of his personality made him perfect for pairs. Like most in that discipline, he's had various partnerships that ended after a few years, often for geography reasons. He stayed in the Kansas City area until 2005 when he eventually relocated to Delaware.

Now he's in Colorado with New Hampshire-born Yankowskas, a tandem that began in 2007 when she moved to Colorado Springs looking for a new coach and partner.

"He's such a goofball, and I always tell him that," Yankowskas said of Coughlin. "But on the ice, we're really best friends. I'm a little more serious and can be a little more of a tough guy than him. We complement each other that way. It always keeps practice entertaining, to say the least.

"He's also like a brother out there; I call him my protector. He's like a German shepherd. You can see it when we practice. He herds me around like I'm a sheep he's taking care of or something."

Coughlin and Yankowskas finished sixth at nationals last January in Spokane, Wash., in an Olympic year. Later that same month, they were fourth at the Four Continents Championship in Korea. When Coughlin returned from that trip, his mother had taken a turn for the worse.

"When we were at Four Continents, she had written to me on Facebook about how beautiful Caitlin was and how happy she was for us," he said. "She was very sharp all [the] way until the end."

He and a longtime friend from St. Joseph, Mo., singles skater Ryan Bradley, went back to Missouri to visit Stacy.

"I knew that we were going home to say goodbye," Coughlin said. "The last thing she said to Ryan and I was to keep skating."

Though it may seem cliché, Sappenfield sees that through the most difficult times Coughlin has gotten in better touch with the one part of skating that was always the hardest for him: truly conveying the emotions and artistic grace of the sport.

"To be able to deal with his loss, he needed to confront it and not hide it," Sappenfield said. "If something triggered a memory in practice, he talked about it. I think he's now able to get to that point where it's OK to be happy, and I've told him so many times, 'You mom is still so proud of you.' And he feels that now.

"I don't think he's reached his peak yet. This past year, he's taken his training to another level. He really needed to put forth the work to get to that artistic side, I always knew he could. He just had to get comfortable with working on it. He has all that within him. He's grown so much this past year."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.