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.

Darren Staples/REUTERS
Gold medallist Kayla Harrison celebrates during the awards ceremony for the women's judo competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games in London Thursday.

The first American gold medal in judo was forged between Today’s Transmission and Stewy’s Custom Cycles.

It was there, on the doorstep of Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass., that Kayla Harrison arrived in 2007 – scared, 16, and utterly broken.

Ms. Harrison had been sexually abused by her coach for the last three years. She was, she says, “an emotional car wreck” with thoughts of suicide, so her mother did what she thought was best: put her in the care of the renowned gym, run by an Olympic medalist, to start building a new life.

In the end, there could not have been a better place.

It has brought her to this moment – gold in the judo half heavyweight class (172 pounds) – and, far more than that, a life reconstructed.

Like many Olympians, Harrison found that what she needed most was a sporting family. The task of working to be the best in the world can be a solitary business, with athletes training from morning until night, locked within the universe of their own ambitions.

Sometimes, that is just too much to take. When American heptathlete Hyleas Fountain went from training on her own to training with a group of peers, it changed everything. “It makes me want to go to practice everyday. It makes me want to work harder,” she said at a media summit in May.

For Harrison, it meant something even more profound. It meant a training partner to roust her out of bed every morning at 4:30 to make her go to training – at time when she only wanted to give up. It meant she had an Olympic medalist to take her under her wing like a little sister at a time when she needed one.

And more than anything, it meant two coaches at Pedro’s Judo Center who rekindled her love for the sport and refused to allow her past to define what she was to become.

Thursday, Harrison became an Olympic champion, and what had come before only served to make that achievement more poignant.

“This is not just one day,” she said after defeating Britain’s surprise finalist, Gemma Gibbons, in front of Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “My teammates, coaches, and family have sacrificed so much to make my dream come true, and today it has.”

Taking a beating

On a summer day before Harrison left for London, Harrison’s supporting cast is assembled in Pedro’s Judo Center. Before the training session, she says to this reporter, “are you going to stick around and watch them beat me up?”

And that is precisely what they do.

No fewer than a half dozen male judokas line up opposite her on the mat, some sporting copious amounts of chest hair beneath their open judogi robe, some laughing at the others’ chest hair. It feels like an outtake from “Good Will Hunting” in pajamas.

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.

“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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