An American Olympian rebuilds a life through judo and friends

Kayla Harrison, who was once abused by a coach, has gone from thoughts of suicide to having a legitimate chance of becoming America's first gold medalist in judo.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kayla Harrison, a member of the US Olympic judo team, practices at Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass. After being abused by a former coach, she has found support and succor from teammates and new trainers.

Kayla Harrison can recall the date instantly. It is not a date that people would remember, like a birthday that requires a Post-it note or a Hallmark card. It is one seared into her memory, a signpost that she now says marks the moment that turned her life around.

May 16, 2007.

This summer, Americans will come to know Ms. Harrison as the woman with the back story that is heartbreaking beyond the ordinary, even by the Olympics' unique standards.

She is the judo competitor who, at age 13, began to be sexually abused by a coach she had known since she was 8 – one who baby-sat her siblings and even went with the family on vacations. She is the girl who, at age 16, after accusing the coach she had been "brainwashed" into thinking she loved for three years, wrote in her diary every night that she only wanted to die.

But that is not the woman who will take to the mat in London – the 2010 world champion who has a legitimate chance to become America's first-ever Olympic gold medalist in judo.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I'm the mentally toughest competitor in my weight class," she said at a media event in Dallas in May. "I know that there's nothing in my life that's going to be harder than [dealing with] that."

The road from 16-year-old filled with confusion and self-loathing to 2012 Olympian has, not surprisingly, been a difficult one – at times she dissolved into tears right on the judo mat. But that renewal began when Harrison's mother tapped the brakes outside Pedro's Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass., after a 16-hour drive from their Ohio home May 16, 2007.

Bringing Harrison to a gym run by two judo legends who had an impeccable reputation – both ethically and athletically – but who were half a country away from friends and family, was an "executive decision" by her mother, Harrison now says with a wry smile. There were few smiles then. When her mother first met with Jimmy Pedro Sr. and Jimmy Pedro Jr., who run the gym, "I remember thinking, 'Wow, they're deciding my future,' and I couldn't even care," she says. "I was so numb."

On a June afternoon two months before the London Games begin, Harrison sits in that same spare office. The smell of sweat and the "thwap" of thrown bodies on the mats outside, once despised for their connection to the coach who betrayed her, are now the stimulant of a life reconstructed.

"Without a doubt, it changed my life," she says. "I'd be hard pressed to find a better place to end up."

At first blush, it might not have seemed that way. A barracks existence with a handful of other judo players training with the Pedros, in a foreign and hardscrabble blue-collar town, and indentured to the judo sweat shop run by "Big Jim" – an indomitable New England old salt with vocabulary to match – was nothing short of culture shock.

Big Jim acknowledges, "I was very hard on her, judo-wise. I wanted her to reach her full judo potential."

But there were also hours spent in Big Jim's car outside the gym before practice, talking about life. There were therapy sessions arranged with a top sports psychologist, the school the Pedros enrolled her in, the jobs they found for her. And when the time came, the truth they spoke to her.

"It happened to you, but it doesn't define you," Harrison recalls Big Jim telling her in one of his tough-love moments. "You're going to have to realize you have to get over it."

"Big Jim is like a father figure to me," Harrison adds. "I trust him with everything."

In 2008, Harrison's former coach, Daniel Doyle, pleaded guilty to a charge of abuse; Harrison testified at the sentencing at the Pedros' urging. "The huge swing was when she went down to the trial and faced him," says Jimmy, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist.

Mr. Doyle was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Two years later, Harrison won the world championship in her 172-pound weight class.

"When I became world champion I took stock of what it took to get there," she says. "It was the one and only time I felt complete and total peace. I was whole again."


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