After coaching figure skaters for more than two decades, Christina McPherson was happier than she had ever been in her role at the Sno-King Ice Arena in Snoqualmie.
McPherson was named the $23 million facility’s director of figure skating when it first opened in September 2020, during some of the worst points in the pandemic. Still, she said, she was quickly embraced by the community of skaters. In her nearly year and a half at the helm, she hired over 20 coaches and turned the arena’s “Learn to Skate” program into a nearly million-dollar get for the arena.
“I thought I would retire in Snoqualmie,” she said. “I had never been happier in a place before all this happened.”
What happened was McPherson was fired this past January, which she said came just three days after informing her boss that she had spoken with investigators regarding the sexual assault of a 17-year-old Sno-King employee.
Since then, McPherson and Heather Van Hulle — a former Sno-King coach who quit days after McPherson was fired, fearing similar retaliation — filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in King County Superior Court on March 15, naming Sno-King, its six-person board of directors and its executive director as defendants.
The termination comes in the aftermath of what McPherson and Van Hulle said was months of efforts trying to get upper management at Sno-King to reprimand its staff and be transparent with the public — after failing to protect a 17-year-old girl who worked as a junior coach at the arena and was allegedly sexually assaulted by a 44-year-old coworker, according to the lawsuit.
That alleged assault took place on Oct. 9, 2021, at a house party hosted by a Sno-King coach. In total, seven Sno-King coaches and the Snoqualmie facility manager, all of whom are adults, were in attendance. McPherson and Van Hulle were also invited, but did not attend, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the party involved heavy drinking and the 17-year-old became intoxicated and fell asleep. She was woken up by Janusz McKinnon, a Sno-King coach, who sexually assaulted her for over an hour, according to the lawsuit.
The 17-year-old, who has been coached by McPherson since she was six, reported the incident to her the following day. McPherson and Van Hulle subsequently filed a report with the Snoqualmie Police Department on her behalf. They also each filed separate reports with the U.S. Center for SafeSport, opening an investigation into the incident.
SafeSport is an independent agency codified by the U.S. Congress in 2017 to handle all sexual assault and abuse investigations involving Olympic sports and its governing bodies. All figure skating coaches at Sno-King are under SafeSport’s jurisdiction and are required by federal law to report instances of suspected sexual assault.
At the time of the incident, McPherson’s direct supervisor was out of town, so she called Sno-King Executive Director Larry Mana’O to inform him of what happened, according to the lawsuit.
A voicemail left on Mana’O’s phone by the Valley Record seeking comment for this report was not returned.
Since the alleged assault, McKinnon has been fired by Sno-King and had his membership with the U.S. Figure Skating temporarily suspended as he remains under investigation by SafeSport. He has been charged in municipal court with assault in the fourth degree and supplying liquor to a minor, according to the Issaquah Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Although the coaches who attended the party are under SafeSport jurisdiction – and could face additional penalties as SafeSport continues its inquiry – the arena’s facility manager is not. He only reports to Sno-King management.
On Jan. 18, McPherson spoke with a SafeSport official for multiple hours as part of its investigation into the Oct. 9 assault. In a regularly scheduled business meeting with her superior on Jan. 24, she mentioned this interaction and was told her cooperation could “negatively impact business,” according to the lawsuit.
While at home sick on Jan. 27, McPherson received a call from her superior asking to check her email, where she received a letter of termination. It’s unknown whether Mana’O informed the Sno-King board of directors of his decision to fire McPherson before proceeding with that action.
Leading up to the termination, between Dec. 20 and Jan. 24, McPherson was in the arena less than five times, she said, due to a combination of vacation time and a sinus infection.
An email sent to Jarrett Goodkin, the president of the Sno-King board of directors, and a separate email sent to the Sno-King communications manager by the Valley Record seeking comment were not returned.
Van Hulle, said she was “completely blindsided” by McPherson’s termination. Since she had also been involved in the SafeSport’s investigation, she quit on Jan. 30 fearing similar retaliation, she said.
“The only difference [between McPherson and I] was upper management didn’t know the extent to my involvement with the investigation,” she said, adding that McPherson would still be working there if she hadn’t told management about her involvement.
“This is why victims don’t report. People hold it back because they fear retaliation,” Van Hulle said.
According RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, More than two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported, with a fear of retaliation being the second most common reason why.
“Imagine being a 17-year-old girl and going to her coach of 11 years, her boss, and then finding out the person sticking up for you was fired,” McPherson said.
The events following the alleged assault have had turbulent impacts on both coaches’ careers and emotional well being, they said, calling the situation a nightmare. The situation has also limited their ability to work, they said. Washington state has few ice rinks and three of the largest rinks in King County are all owned by Sno-King.
The lawsuit is seeking reinstatement for both coaches as well as back pay, and damages. An online petition to reinstate McPherson has already garnered over 400 signatures.
Their trial date for the lawsuit is scheduled for March 2023, according to online King County court records.
If someone you know has experienced sexual abuse, you can contact the national sexual assault hotline and speak to a trained staff member at (800)-656-HOPE or chat online at hotline.rainn.org.