Former Olympic skater John Zimmerman suspended following accusation of sex abuse cover-up

John Zimmerman, a 2002 Olympian and member of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, has been suspended for two years by the U.S. Center for SafeSport after being accused of failing to report and covering up the alleged 2017 sexual abuse of a 13-year-old female skater he coached, and allegedly shaming and threatening the girl after he found out about the incident.

The suspension, which was announced on the SafeSport website Tuesday evening, is subject to appeal. SafeSport, which described the offense as "abuse of process, emotional misconduct, failure to report," did not disclose the length of the suspension, but a person with knowledge of the investigation told USA TODAY Sports that Zimmerman received a two-year suspension plus one year of probation.

The person requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Zimmerman is prohibited from participation in any capacity in any program, activity, event or competition sponsored by, organized by or under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the national governing body for the sport (U.S. Figure Skating in this case), or at a facility under the jurisdiction of the USOPC or USFS.

Morgan Cipres, left, is shown with John Zimmeran, far right — and Cipres' partner, Vanessa James — after completing the free program at the Olympics in 2018. (Photo: Jean Catuffe, Getty Images)

In December 2019, USA TODAY Sports reported that SafeSport had opened an investigation into an allegation that on Dec. 3, 2017, French Olympic pairs skater Morgan Cipres sent two photos of his penis to the girl, who skated at the same rink as Cipres in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Cipres also was coached by Zimmerman. 

The girl and her parents said that instead of going to police or SafeSport, which opened in March 2017 to investigate sexual abuse in Olympic sports, Zimmerman and his coaching partner and wife Silvia Fontana allegedly implored them to stay quiet because Cipres, who then was 26, and his pairs partner Vanessa James were in the final stages of their preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where they finished fifth.

The girl and her parents allege that Zimmerman and Fontana intimidated the girl for several weeks, telling her that she was at fault for receiving the pictures because she was a “pretty girl and men have their needs,” that no one would believe her and that she would be shamed on social media, particularly in France, where Cipres was popular.

The girl and her parents allege that Vinny Dispenza, another coach who works with Zimmerman and Fontana, initiated the incident by telling the girl and another underage female skater to message Cipres asking him to send the photos to the girls in exchange for the promise of a pizza from Dispenza.

Zimmerman and Fontana were made aware of the photos in a meeting with Dispenza at their home the evening of Dec. 3, 2017, the girl and her parents said.

The girl and her parents are not being identified because USA TODAY Sports does not publish the names of alleged victims of sexual abuse.

Dispenza also allegedly issued a threat. “If I said something, he said I would never skate again,” the girl said.

In December 2019, when reached by USA TODAY Sports, Cipres said he had “nothing to say about this allegation,” while Zimmerman, Fontana and Dispenza denied the allegations. They all are still coaching at the AdventHealth Center Ice rink in Florida.

Fontana and Dispenza are not listed on SafeSport's centralized disciplinary database, however they each received six months of probation, according to the person with knowledge of the investigation.

Cipres retired from competitive figure skating in September 2020, less than a year and a half before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, where he and James would have been contenders for an Olympic medal.  

In December 2020, the Florida state attorney’s office filed a felony charge against Cipres for the transmission of material harmful to a minor by electronic device, and a warrant was issued for his arrest, according to an attorney involved in the case and emails obtained by USA TODAY Sports. The charge is a third-degree felony and carries up to a five-year prison sentence. 

Cipres is no longer in Florida and is believed to be living in France.

The girl’s parents provided USA TODAY Sports with a Dec. 30, 2017 email sent from their daughter’s tutor, whose name is not being used to protect the identity of the family, to Dara Bushman, a psychologist who worked with their daughter.  

“Please ask her to share with you the many statements that have been made to her over the past few weeks (mostly by John) in an attempt to manipulate or scare her into keeping quiet,” the tutor wrote of the young skater. “She has been told that telling will place a target on her back with French fans, that she is the type of girl who does this (collect pics), that she has been asking for it by her clothing choices, that her dad is an attorney and imagine what he will do if he finds out, that she will destroy his career and that of his partner, and much more.” 

“I received that email,” Bushman said. “I did what I was bound to do ethically. I contacted the parents. I contacted the authorities. I wanted to make sure the child was safe.”

When the police arrived to interview the girl, she refused to tell them what happened, her parents said. Within a few weeks of the alleged incident, the parents said they took their daughter out of the Tampa-area rink and returned to their home in South Florida. The authorities took no action after the girl declined to cooperate. 

In June 2020, however, the Pasco County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office reopened the investigation. Andrea Lewis, the attorney for the skater and her family, said the girl was "fully cooperating."

On Aug. 10, 2019, a friend of the family reported the alleged incident to SafeSport after reading three-time U.S. champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Ashley Wagner’s story of alleged sexual abuse in USA TODAY Sports on Aug. 1. 

Wagner’s allegation against former U.S. pairs champion John Coughlin was the latest in a startling series of sexual abuse allegations and suspensions that have rocked figure skating since January 2019.

Coughlin, 33, died by suicide Jan. 18, 2019, one day after he received an interim suspension from SafeSport. USA TODAY Sports has reported that there were three reports of sexual abuse against Coughlin, two of them involving minors. Coughlin’s death effectively ended the investigation into those reports. Wagner’s case is separate from those three reports. 

Zimmerman, 47, had an illustrious career as one of the top U.S. pairs skaters in decades. He and partner Kyoko Ina finished fifth at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and also won three U.S. national pairs titles and the 2002 world championship bronze medal. He and Ina were inducted into the USFS Hall of Fame on January 5, 2018.

Fontana, 44, a 2002 and 2006 Olympian representing Italy, is five-time Italian national champion in singles skating. 

Cipres, 29, along with his pairs partner James, won six French national titles, the 2018 world championship bronze medal, the 2018 Grand Prix Final and the 2019 European championship.

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