Third in an occasional series profiling US Olympic hopefuls training for the Summer Games in London.
WAKEFIELD—The time and place are five months and an ocean away, but Kayla Harrison already knows what she’ll be doing on Aug. 2.
“It’s something that I go to bed thinking about every night,’’ said the former world judo champion, who is favored to win a medal at the London Olympics. “I go through every single match that I could possibly have. I go through my weigh-ins. I go through what I’m going to have for breakfast.
“I almost envision what it was like in Beijing. Every day in my mind, when I go to sleep, I win the Olympics. So when I get there, it’ll already have happened a million times.’’
Jim Pedro, the former world titlist and two-time Olympic medalist who coaches Harrison, preaches visualization and positive thinking.
“This is my day, this is my purpose,’’ she keeps telling herself.
Harrison had that day two years ago in Tokyo when she became the first American woman since 1964 to win a global crown in judo. Which is why she was bitterly disappointed when she had to settle for bronze at last summer’s championships in Paris.
“The difference between me and the other girls on the podium is that I consider this a failure,’’ Harrison said then.
The idea that a medal of any color would be a disappointment shows how far USA Judo has come since the sport was added to the Olympic women’s program two decades ago and how far Harrison has come since she turned up at Pedro’s dojo here five years ago to train with Team Force’s other Olympic hopefuls.
“If you want to be a champion,’’ said the 21-year-old from Middletown, Ohio, “you have to go where the champions are.’’
Harrison had hit the competitive ceiling back home, so a relocation was inevitable.
“If I was going to get to the level that I’m at, I was going to have to leave Ohio eventually,’’ she said. “It was always probably going to be this place. It was just a matter of when.’’
But it was what happened off the mat that made her depart sooner rather than later, as Harrison’s painful secret came to light—that her coach Daniel Doyle had sexually abused her for several years.
“My mother found out, she immediately pressed charges, and then a month later, she packed me up and shipped me up here,’’ said Harrison.
She was, she recalls, “an emotional, distraught, 16-year-old car wreck,’’ and Pedro and Big Jim, his father and coaching partner, immediately realized that judo lessons were a secondary priority.
“When we heard Kayla’s story, it was heart-wrenching, but we knew that the most important thing that we could do was to get her back on track with life,’’ said the younger Pedro. “She had potential but she certainly had more important things to deal with.
“Kayla needed everything from us. She needed psychological support, she needed emotional support. She needed people that she could confide in, people that she could trust who were positive.’’
Breakthrough and closure
What had happened to her was not her fault, Pedro told her, so she shouldn’t blame herself.
“I was crying my eyes out and telling him, ‘It takes two to tango,’ ’’ Harrison said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘My daughter is 12 years old, and if anyone ever did to her what was done to you, I would kill him.’
“Now I realize that what happened to me was wrong, but it’s one of those things that takes time.’’
Going to tournaments cranked up her anxiety.
“The judo community in the United States is small so everyone knew, although they didn’t mention my name in the papers or anything that it was me,’’ Harrison said. “And so I felt like all eyes were on me. I couldn’t go into a room without feeling like people know what’s going on. It was rough.’’
It was a conversation with the elder Pedro that finally led to a breakthrough.
“I was crying because I just didn’t want to do it anymore,’’ Harrison recalled. “It wasn’t worth it to me. I was tired of being the tough one, I was tired of being the strong one, I was tired of being that girl.
“And Big Jim said to me, ‘You know what, kid? It happened to you, but it doesn’t define you, and someday you’re going to have to get over it.’ And he was right. I’m only a victim if I allow myself to be.’’
What Harrison needed was a formal conclusion, and it came four years ago in an Ohio courtroom.
“That was truly the toughest day of my life,’’ she said. “I remember calling Jimmy because I was hyperventilating and I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to go through with it. Continued...