“Although he pled guilty [to illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place] I still had to speak in front of the judge and say my piece, and I just didn’t think I could face him.
“Jimmy walked me through it like it was a match. He said, ‘You walk up there, you tell the judge the truth, you sit down, and that’s it, it’s over. You do your part and you’re done. You don’t have to worry about this anymore. It’s over with. You don’t want to be dealing with this the rest of your life. This will be good closure for you.’
“And it was.’’
Doyle was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and banned for life from coaching by USA Judo. And Harrison, finally, could put her nightmare behind her and begin working toward her dream.
“What happened to me happened to me because of this sport,’’ she said, “but I don’t think I would have been able to survive without it. It gave me a goal. It gave me something to push for.’’
On the world stage
Pedro’s dojo was a whirlwind of activity and ambition in 2008, with the top players gunning for Olympic spots. Grappling with them daily was humbling, but it was nothing new for Harrison, who had always been ahead of herself.
“I’d always fought the next age group up, the next weight group up,’’ she said. “I started fighting in the senior women’s division when I was 12 years old, so I had a lot of experience losing but also fighting older women, more experienced women, tougher women. I was thrown in with a pack of wolves and I had to learn how to run on my own.’’
At Pedro’s, Harrison was knocking heads with Ronda Rousey, who that summer went on to become the first American women’s Olympic medalist in the sport and now is an up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighter.
“It was nothing personal on the mat, just business,’’ said Harrison. “We were kind of ‘frenemies.’ ’’
If the US had qualified in the 78-kilogram class, she and Rousey would have been teammates in Beijing, since Harrison went on to win the trials. Instead, Harrison went to China as Rousey’s sparring partner and got a priceless sneak preview of the Games.
“We stayed at Beijing University and ate with the athletes every day,’’ she said. “I had breakfast sort of close to Michael Phelps. It was really awesome.’’
When Rousey won the bronze at 70 kg, Harrison became convinced that she could make the podium, too. That fall she won the world junior title (“my coming-out party’’), made the senior team in 2009, then claimed the world crown a year later.
She wasn’t at her best that day, but then, neither was her Brazilian opponent.
“You think that you have to be phenomenal and spot-on, that you have to have those white moments where nothing can go wrong,’’ Harrison said. “We were both terrified. Neither one of us wanted to make a mistake. I just had to make one less than her.’’
What she learned last summer was that retaining the title was more difficult than winning it.
“Heading into the worlds as reigning champion, Kayla unquestionably felt pressure, and I think that pressure got to her,’’ said Pedro. “She was really nervous about her training. A lot of tears, a lot of emotion, tension, stress.’’
Yet Harrison competed superbly at the championships, losing to France’s Audrey Tcheumeo, the eventual victor, in the semifinals. Still, her bronze medal might as well have been tin.
“I think I’m quoting Michael Jordan when I say this, but failure is my fuel,’’ she said. “It’s always made me hungrier. It’s always kept me on my toes.’’
‘In a really good place’
A former world champion going to Olympus as an underdog is a dangerous rival, and Harrison has spent most of the winter taking out her frustrations on the people she’s most likely to face in London. Twice she has beaten Olympic champion Yang Xiuli as part of a run that included Grand Prix victories in Qingdao and Dusseldorf, a silver in the Grand Slam in Paris, and a triumph at the World Cup in Budapest.
“There’s no unknown,’’ said Pedro. “There’s no girl that we hope she doesn’t fight. She’s beaten everybody.’’
There’s no guarantee that Harrison will do it on one day in London. One mistake, one unguarded moment and she can be thrown for a match-ending ippon.
Her coach knows first-hand how precarious the sport can be. In 2000, he went to Sydney as the world champion, lost his opening match to a Korean, and didn’t make the podium. Then after a two-year retirement, he came back and won bronze in Athens.
“Without question, I’ve been able to help Kayla psychologically,’’ he said. “I can say, ‘I’ve been through this before. I know what you’re feeling. But this is what you have to do if you want to win the Olympics.’ ’’Continued...