WAKEFIELD, Mass. (AP) — In a tin-sided warehouse north of Boston, above Stewy’s Custom Cycles along a steep staircase lined with Olympic posters, Kayla Harrison found sensei Jimmy Pedro Jr. and, through him and his dojo, a gentle way back from sexual abuse.
Moving to Pedro’s Judo Center after she was molested by her coach in Ohio, Harrison arrived six years ago as a reigning national champion but also a 16-year-old girl in turmoil. The sport her mother first studied for self-defense had brought her daughter incredible anguish. The solution they turned to: judo itself.
“For a long time, I hated judo, and I hated everything associated with it. And what was once my passion kind of became my prison,” Harrison said in an interview at the dojo — or training studio — as she prepared for the London Games. “But training at this level and devoting my life to something, like this, I cannot help but love it — again.
“It’s caused a lot of pain in my life, but it’s also been the best thing to ever happen to me.”
Now 22, Harrison is heading to the Olympics as a favorite to medal at under 78 kilograms (172 pounds). Pedro will be there, too, as the head coach of the U.S. judo team and a mentor who, along with his father, called upon the sport known as “the gentle way” to rehabilitate Harrison from an injury they couldn’t see or, really, comprehend.
“When Kayla came here, she was broken down. She was a very confused adolescent who was traumatized by what happened to her, who came here with an extreme sense of guilt, of low self-esteem, of not knowing what she was going to do with her life,” Pedro said.
“To say that she’s a different person today — I don’t want to say that she’s done a 180, because Kayla was a strong-willed person and she was goal-oriented and she was extremely hard-working. She possessed those skills. But emotionally and psychologically, she was scarred. Understandably so.”
A four-time Olympian who won bronze medals in 1996 and 2004, Pedro has filled his dojo with Olympic mementos. Flags from previous games hang from the ceiling, along with other, one-word banners designed to motivate all who visit, the wrestlers and the judoka, the elementary school students and the would-be Olympians: “Focus.” ”Discipline.” ”Respect.” ”Confidence.”
“They are basic martial arts tenets,” Pedro said, “but in my leadership program I emphasize those as being important traits to become a future leader and champion.”
Kayla Harrison was just 16 when she arrived in Massachusetts — too young for the sexual relationship she’d been having with a man 16 years her senior.
“When I moved here, I had just come out about what happened,” Harrison said. “My mother was in the process of pressing charges. The FBI was working on a case. And I was a very, very confused, distraught 16-year-old girl.
“I mean, for half of my life I had thought that I loved this guy, and that it was wrong but it was OK, it was just a special circumstance.”
Daniel Doyle, who started coaching Harrison when she was 8, pleaded guilty in 2007 to illicit sexual conduct while taking her on trips to Venezuela, Estonia and Russia over a four-year period that started when she was 12. (Harrison thinks it might have been even earlier.) He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and expelled for life from USA Judo, the sport’s national governing body.
Harrison’s mother, Jeannie Yazell, feared that keeping her in Ohio would have meant surrounding her with the same influences, including Doyle, and probably would have forced her to give up judo.
“There was no place to go here. … It was all that she knew,” Yazell said. “And I knew that if she just quit she just wouldn’t be able to move on, because she loved it.”
So, within a month of turning Doyle in, she sent her daughter off to Massachusetts to train under Pedro and his father, Jim Pedro Sr., a seventh-degree black belt and 1976 Olympic alternate whom everyone calls “Big Jim.”
“It was the hardest decision her father and I made, moving her away,” Yazell said. “How do you support your kid when they’re 14 hours away?”
And the fresh start was a rough one.
“Being thrown in here, I had to learn how to run with the wolves,” Harrison said. “I hated judo, I hated my mother, I hated Big Jim and Jimmy, I hated everything. I wanted to run away. I wanted to get out. I didn’t want to be the strong girl, I didn’t want to live up to everyone’s expectations of me.”
She did try to run away. She thought of quitting judo and of suicide. She was upset that she lacked money and friends. “She was still kind of fragile, doing crazy things” — like remaining in contact with Doyle, Yazell said.
“I was failing miserably at life,” Harrison said. “I was a teenage punk. Everyone was wrong in my eyes.”
One day after going for a training run she sat down on the steps with Big Jim at his house and watched the sun rise over Arlington Pond. They had a conversation that Harrison calls the turning point in her recovery, yet it was one so routine that the elder Pedro doesn’t specifically remember it.
“He said to me point blank, he said, ‘You know, Kid, it happened to you, but it doesn’t define you. And someday you’re going to have to get over it. You can’t let it run your life like this.’ And he was right. I’m only a victim if I choose to be,” Harrison said. “It was some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and it’s still true to this day. I’m only a victim if I allow myself to be.
“Jimmy and Big Jim refused to let me kind of go down the wrong path. And they didn’t really give me an option. It was definitely not my own mental toughness, but the toughness and the tough love of people around me.”
She rededicated herself to judo. On the tatami, she could be Kayla Harrison, judoka; Kayla Harrison, six-time national champion; and eventually Kayla Harrison, world champion — the first American woman to claim that title in 26 years.
In the sport that had caused so much anguish, she also found an escape.
“That’s why sports is good for you, it takes your mind off,” said Big Jim Pedro, who will be in London as an assistant U.S. judo coach. “You get that relaxation of getting away from your troubles. It helps your mind rest. You don’t have time to think about your problems, because you’re working too hard.”
Harrison won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in 2008 but in a weight class that the Americans had not qualified for. She attended the Beijing Games as an “Olympic hopeful,” which allowed her to hang out in the athletes village.
“I kinda sorta had breakfast with Michael Phelps,” she said with a laugh. “He doesn’t know it, but we did. I got my picture with him and stuff.”
In 2010, Harrison won the world championship. She took bronze in Paris a year later after losing to the eventual winner, France’s Audrey Tcheuméo, who is expected to be her top competition in London.
In hindsight, Harrison said, she is relieved to have avoided the pressure of being the first American two-time world champion.
“The older I get, the more experience I get, the more I realize that it is the big picture, and I can’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “There’s always going to be another tournament; there’s always going to be another match.”
For Harrison, that will be at the ExCeL venue in London on Aug. 2.
“That is the big picture,” Harrison said. “There’s nothing bigger than that.”
Nothing in judo, at least.
Should she win, she has vowed to retire from judo and pursue all the activities she has been postponing in order to train: a college degree, marriage, a job as a judo instructor or firefighter. (She has been certified as an EMT and is No. 1 on the list of potential hires for the fire department in the town of Marblehead.)
“I’ve only wanted to do two things in my life, and that’s be world champion and be Olympic champion,” she said. “So if I reach my second goal, of becoming America’s first Olympic champ, I can’t see myself being motivated to going through this for another four years. It is fun, but it’s also grueling. It’s a grind. This lifestyle is a grind. I’d love to see if I’m good at anything else in life.”
On a table just off the mat where Harrison practices her throws, a light workout that looks more like an awkward dance than Olympic training, Harrison’s iPhone whistles with each new voicemail and text. She ignores it, pausing from the routine only once, to turn up the music in the dojo.
On top of the phone Harrison has placed her engagement ring, a symbol for a future she once doubted she could have, and also of a past that she cannot completely forget.
You see, her fiance is Aaron Handy, her training partner in Ohio and the friend she first confided in about her relationship with Doyle. He is the one who persuaded her to tell her mother, then came with her — still just as friends — to Massachusetts.
They were engaged this winter.
No date has been set. It’s one of those things that is being put off until after London.
“My future after the Olympics is kind of like a blank wall. Everything is kind of up in the air,” Harrison said. “My whole life has been sort of on hold for this. It’s always, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to school — after the Olympics. I want to do this — after the Olympics. I want to go on a cruise — after the Olympics. I want to get married — after the Olympics.’ You know, it’s kind of what my life is revolving around right now.
“Who knows? I could join the circus after the Olympics,” she said. “I’m not counting anything out.”
A 19th Century Japanese educator named Jigoro Kano, sickly as a child and 5-foot-2 as an adult, was studying jujitsu for self-defense when he found himself drawn more to its throws and grappling techniques than the kicks and punches. He organized these moves into a separate discipline and gave it the name judo — roughly translated, “gentle way” — to evoke its preference for leverage and balance over hitting and kicking the opponent.
In the new sport, strength was not the ultimate goal but merely a pathway to a more perfect self.
“You’re not just doing judo for sport. Judo becomes your way of life,” said Jimmy Pedro, who graduated from Brown University with a business degree. “He (Kano) was a philosopher and an educator first. So he did things that made judo people better: they care about others.”
Pedro has tried to incorporate Kano’s teachings into his own, making an effort to “develop the whole person.” He encourages the judoka to get an education and to support themselves through employment and endorsements.
In Harrison, he had a perfect student.
“They come here because they want to go to the Olympics — that’s the No. 1 goal. (But) we also make sure that there’s balance in these athletes’ lives,” Pedro said, pausing to blow up a balloon for his 4-year-old daughter, Taila. “I think you end up becoming a better athlete — clearly you end up being a better person — when you balance things.
“Kayla’s success in judo certainly helps her self-esteem, because she feels invincible.”
Like Pedro’s, judo runs in Harrison’s family.
Her mother was in need of another college credit when she took her first class, rising as high as a black belt “with a couple degrees.” When her daughter was about 6, she saw a commercial for karate and taekwondo and asked to try it.
“I said, ‘No, I think you’ll do judo,'” Yazell said by telephone from an Ohio travel agency, where she was making plans to visit Stonehenge after Kayla’s event.
“There’s no kicking or punching. You learn to use the other person’s balance to throw them. It’s more about control. So you learn that if you’re in a bad position with someone, you learn to get out of it.”
Harrison was slow to succeed but loved the tournaments: She was the center of attention, and staying in hotels with swimming pools. She began complaining that other activities like T-ball were taking time away from judo practice.
By the time she was 11 or 12, though, she was moving up in weight class or in age group to find better competition.
“I didn’t have a lot of natural talent,” she said. “I think it was more hard work.”
She took up cross country and wrestling, but only to stay in shape for judo. At 13, she was competing at the senior level and began to think about the Olympics. She had met Pedro — he autographed her robe, called a gi — and watched on TV as he won his second Olympic bronze medal, in Athens.
“When I was 16 and I moved here to train with Jimmy, I realized, ‘If I train with the best, why can’t I be the best?'” she said.
It’s difficult to stand in the center of a crowded arena, alone on a mat except for a rival and a referee, wishing that no one noticed you.
Harrison had always loved being the center of attention as a young child, the oldest of three. But after the details of her relationship with Doyle became public, she wanted merely to blend in, as if her white gi would disappear among the rice straw of the tatami, invisible to the audience and to the commenters on the judo bulletin boards who blamed her.
“A 13-year-old girl — it screwed up her life big-time,” Big Jim Pedro said. “I would think that something’s always going to be there the rest of your life.”
Harrison overcame her fears with each judo victory.
Then, last fall, she realized that quietly overcoming her problems was not enough.
Harrison felt a familiar pang when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of molesting children. And when she saw students protesting with more concern about the fate of Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno than the sexual abuse victims, she spoke up.
“I feel like we’re making progress,” she said in the same calm voice she used to described her own experience with abuse. “But as a society, I felt like being a victim of sexual abuse has this huge taboo around it, and that’s just wrong. If anything, it should be the opposite.
“I don’t know, it’s tough. I remember being a victim, and I remember reading things on judoforum, you know, ‘We don’t know what she did. It could be her fault.’ And I remember people talking about you — gossip and this and that. And no one should have to go through that, especially having gone through what they’ve gone through. It’s not what I want to see for victims.”
For now, Harrison is too busy training for London to become a spokeswoman for a cause, even one as important to her as helping victims of sexual abuse. But as she makes the media rounds in the run-up to London, she has been forthright in talking about her history with Doyle.
If the currency of a taboo is whispers and innuendo, she reasons, perhaps it can be conquered by speaking out candidly and without shame.
“Mostly what I’ve gotten is, ‘Something similar happened to me when I was younger, and I wish I had said something.’ Or, ‘I knew of something going on and I wish that I had said something,’ and ‘you’re so brave for coming out about your story,'” Harrison said. “That part of it is sad to me, and heartbreaking, because there are so many women and men out there today who just, you know, could have had a different life. It could have been different for them.
“But it also keeps me going, because when I do hear that I think, ‘Well, maybe there is a kid out there who is going to read my story and who is going to say something. Maybe I am going to be that little difference.’
“You know,” she said, “Maybe.”
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