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Kayla Harrison: first-ever gold for US judo forged from adversity

Kayla Harrison was sexually abused by her coach as a teenager, but finding support and love in a new setting helped turn around her life and set her on a path to Olympic judo gold Thursday.

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Aside from the banter, they are here for Harrison, mostly. Their job is to turn Harrison into a balloon animal. The floor shakes with the force of their moves as they maul, wrench, and pin – all while yelling encouragement.

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“Come on, Kayla!”

“Get up! You can do it, Kayla.”

Harrison frequently screams in frustration. Then, at the end of one particularly brutal round, she moans: “I’m gonna puke.”

This, it seems, it the sport’s motto. What she undergoes in this hour-plus training session is nothing short of an old-fashioned whuppin’. But it is an Olympic gold medal in the making.

Training, together

Indeed, in the quarterfinals Thursday, Harrison fell behind her opponent early. But she didn’t panic. “I knew I was in better shape than her,” she said. “It was just a matter of time.”

From the day she arrived at Pedro’s Judo Center, training has been a communal affair. There was Rich Hahn, who woke her every morning. A year later, Harrison went to Beijing as the sparring partner for bronze medalist Rhonda Rousey, who was also training with the Pedros.

But looming over everything that goes on at Pedro’s is Jimmy Pedro Sr., the ever present and irascible patriarch known as “Big Jim.”

Sitting on a desk, Bluetooth wireless headset in his ear and an aura of white hair windswept from the ride here in his convertible, “Big Jim” is the gym’s bad cop.

A rare posture

He, of course, knew why she had been brought here in 2007. But that was not what stood out to him. Instead, even then, he saw the way she stood on a judo mat.

“I saw great potential,” he says. “There’s a posture in judo. You stand up straight, like you know you aren’t going to get thrown, like you know you’re a champion.”

“Very few people have that,” he adds.

But Harrison did.

And so she got tough love. Sometimes, Big Jim would chastise other judokas: “If I yelled at you the way I yell at her, you’d be crying.”

Harrison did cry – a lot. But it was just what she needed, she says now.

“It’s black and white with them. They knew that I needed a male role model, and there was no other way.”

It was Big Jim’s son, Jimmy Pedro Jr. – the two-time Olympic bronze medalist – who sat Harrison down in 2008 to tell her she needed to go to the sentencing hearing for her former coach, Daniel Doyle.

To Jimmy, it was just another match for his young star. 

“When you’re going to the Olympic Games you prepare them for what lies ahead,… and no matter what happened you stay composed, stay focused,” he says.

'You've got to get through this'

So he told her: “You’re going to suck it up, fly there, and get a lot of tough questions,” he recalls telling her. “You’ve got to get through this to do the things you want to do with your life.”

It was at that point, both agree, that Harrison’s life began to change, and four years later it was into his arms that she jumped here in London, the Olympic gold won. 

Already, the Pedros are working to get Harrison ready for a life after judo – whenever that is. With their help, she’s working to become a firefighter.

“Who wouldn’t want to save a life?” she asks.

She would know. 

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