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Never more than now. For their shining achievements in this year of the female athlete and for their sustained ability to inspire, Aly Raisman and Kayla Harrison are the Globe Magazine’s Bostonians of the Year.
KAYLA HARRISON STANDS NEAR THE DOOR of Pedro’s Judo Center, on the second floor of a warehouse in Wakefield. A pair of girls from the class for 4- to 6-year-olds file in. They’re waist-high to Harrison, their hair as blond as hers.
“Konnichiwa!” they shout in succession, high-fiving their sensei. Harrison smiles and returns the Japanese greeting. These days, about half the kids in the classes at Pedro’s are girls.
Harrison herself was just 6, growing up in rural Ohio, when her mother signed her up for her first judo class. The sport was still thoroughly male. It had become an Olympic event for women just four years earlier, at the 1992 Games.
Her mother wanted her to learn self-defense. The cruel irony of Harrison’s life is that judo became not just the source of her strength but also the source of her violation. Her coach, who had become a trusted family friend, started sexually abusing Harrison when she was 12. He continued his abuse for four years, until her mother found out about it, leading to the coach’s arrest and ultimate 10-year sentence.
“My brain was not developed at 12,” Harrison says. “I didn’t know what love was. I thought I did.” That’s what allows adults to exercise so much power over children, she says, citing a staggering if controversial estimate that 1 in 4 girls have been sexually abused by the time they turn 18.
At 16, Harrison was despondent and decided to quit judo. But sensing that the sport might well provide her best route to recovery, her family encouraged her to double down on it. She moved from Ohio to Massachusetts, to live in an apartment with a few teammates and train at the Wakefield judo center run by force of nature “Big Jim” Pedro and his son Jimmy, a four-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist. It was an incredible leap of faith, particularly for so broken a girl. “Because Big Jim and Jimmy believed in me and the fact that I could get over it, after a while I believed in myself again,” she says. “They changed my life and saved my life.” She also credits the support of fellow judo athlete Aaron Handy, who is now her fiance.
Last year, Harrison sat down with a USA Today writer for a pre-Olympic profile. The revolting revelations about another coach-turned-abuser, Jerry Sandusky, were dominating the news. She decided to break the silence about her past. “When you stand up,” she says now, “that weight you feel is gone.”
Since making Olympic history, Harrison has been using her celebrity to raise awareness. Abuse has to stop, she says, and with education, it can. “We’ve got to be able to look at it in the eye. We can’t dance around it,” she says. “That’s my job, to make people look at it.” She has begun planning a foundation that she hopes will become a clearinghouse for the many tiny nonprofits working to reduce abuse.
Meanwhile, Harrison also sees herself as an ambassador for judo — “It’s like a chess match, but you get to throw the other person, so I love it!” — and more generally for women pushing traditional boundaries. She likes being ferocious on the mat but feminine outside the gym, getting her nails done and shopping on Newbury Street. As she puts it, “It’s cool to be a fit chick now.”
A month before her Glamour event, Harrison was in New York to receive the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation. Among the other honorees that night was Birch Bayh, the retired Indiana senator known as the “Father of Title IX.” During the Olympics, the 84-year-old had paid keen attention to the women’s events, in this 40th year of the legislation that ended up reducing the yawning gender gap in the funding of college sports. “I was so proud of those young ladies,” he says from his home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “But I must admit, not in my wildest dreams did I ever think my work would sire a judo champion!”
ALY RAISMAN CURLS UP ON THE LIVING ROOM COUCH, pulling an afghan over her legs, as her white Maltese lap dog Magic nestles near her feet. It’s only her fourth brief visit home in the three months since the Olympics. She still can’t get over her initial return, when news helicopters literally hovered over her limo as it traveled from Logan to her house in Needham. “You fly to London, going as a nobody,” she says. “And then you come back and everyone knows who you are.” She was so naive that she thought by simply wearing her hair down, no one would recognize her. Her punishing post-London schedule has been packed with one high-profile event after another, from hanging with Rihanna at the MTV Video Music Awards to appearing on Dancing With the Stars to taking a turn sitting behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office.Continued...