Pillar of strength: Judo champion finds healing, tough love


By Vicki Michaelis, USA TODAY

WAKEFIELD, Mass. – Early in the morning, late in the evening, and seemingly every hour in between, Pedro’s Judo Center hums with intensity.

At any time, Jim Pedro Sr. might be exhorting a student complaining of an injury to “Get tough!” His son, Jimmy Pedro, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, could be demonstrating a technique with a merciless takedown.

Yet in this place, which gives quarter to hard work and little else, Kayla Harrison found healing.

She was 16 and emotionally tattered from years of sexual abuse by a previous judo coach when she first began training with the Pedros in 2007. Now she’s a world champion aiming to become the first U.S. judo competitor ever to win an Olympic gold medal at next year’s London Games.

“Words cannot say how grateful I am to them,” says Harrison, 21, discussing her past for the first time publicly with USA TODAY. “I consider them like family.”

The Pedros did much more than improve her judo strength, skills and strategy. They coached her through some of her most difficult moments, including the day she testified against her abuser before a judge.

“I called Jimmy,” she says. “I just remember him talking me through it like it was a match.”

Her ex-coach, Daniel Doyle, is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty in November 2007 to one count of “engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place.”

According to a statement of facts filed with the plea agreement, a sexual relationship began “by May 2004,” when Harrison was 13, and continued for three years, including in three foreign countries where Doyle and Harrison traveled for judo competitions.

USA Judo banned Doyle for life. The case did not spur any specific changes in policy at USA Judo, which has an ethics committee to review complaints and which requires background screening for coaches and referees, says Jose Rodriguez, the organization’s chief executive officer. Asked whether he is confident that judo generally is a sport in which children are safe from such abuses, Rodriguez says, “Absolutely.”

Harrison says she has been hesitant about telling her story because “I didn’t want people to think that judo was some sport full of creeps. It’s not.” He is speaking now, nine months ahead of what could be a history-making star turn for her in London, because she wants to help others.

“Hopefully someday, somewhere, I can make a difference if I can talk one girl into coming out or into saying something,” Harrison says.

Putting the past behind her

Last month, Don Peters, who coached the 1984 U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team, resigned from his California training club amid allegations of sexual abuse. Last year, the U.S. Olympic Committee and some of the U.S. organizations that govern Olympic sports fine-tuned their policies and reporting procedures in the wake of several allegations of sex abuse by swimming coaches.

“It’s a work in progress continuously,” Rodriguez says.

Harrison’s story frames the issue at a personal level as the U.S. Olympic team prepares for London.

A native of Middletown, Ohio, Harrison started judo at 6. Her mom, Jeannie Yazell, had taken judo classes in college and steered her oldest child toward the sport when she showed an interest in martial arts.

By 8, Harrison was fully hooked, lured by the excitement of traveling to and participating in competitions. That year, she began working with Doyle, 16 years her senior, at his father’s Renshuden Judo Academy in Centerville, Ohio.

Doyle became a trusted family friend.

“He babysat all three of our children,” says Yazell, who is married to Harrison’s stepfather and also has a 17-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. “They spent the night at his house. He went on vacations with us because our vacations were around judo.”

Harrison started gaining notice in the judo world. When she was 12, a USA Judo coach challenged her to work to qualify for the 2004 Olympic trials, a challenge she ultimately met.

“To the outside world, I was the golden girl,” she says.

Internally, she was in turmoil.

“The teenage ‘angsty’ years were kind of hypersensitive to me because of the situation I had,” she says. “I was extremely suicidal. I would write in my journal all the time about what it would be like if I was gone, what I would do, and if anyone would miss me. Fortunately, I never acted on it.”

Harrison says she told no one what was happening with Doyle until, at 16, she found out he had taken a cruise with a woman.

“I had wanted it to end for a long time,” she says. “But I also thought that I loved him and that was betraying him — me wanting it to end. … So when that happened, I saw it as my escape.”

She began revealing details to a friend, who in turn told Yazell.

“I was devastated and horrified,” says Yazell, who reported it to police. “I can’t imagine that I didn’t know. Still, it’s just unrealistic. There are days that I think, ‘How in the world could I not have known?’ ”

With Doyle out on bail for several months before the plea agreement and sentencing, and with the rumor mill churning in the small world of Ohio judo, Yazell says she felt it was best to move her daughter if she wanted to continue in the sport.

“We wanted her to quit, but I kind of felt like if she quit, she wouldn’t know how to survive,” Yazell says. “It was something she’d done for so long.”

Jimmy Pedro and Harrison first met when he coached her on a junior-level national team. The Pedros, who trained 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Ronda Rousey, “had a stellar reputation,” Harrison says.

Harrison moved into an apartment with several other athletes that were training with the Pedros, including Rousey and 2004 Olympian Rick Hawn. They knew about her situation but did not discuss it.

“Everything was positive, pointed toward making the Olympic team ,” Hawn says.

Harrison says she thought of quitting “every day for about a year and a half” but the Pedros “kept me stable.”

“My father took on the role of father, and I took on the role of coach,” Jimmy Pedro says. “This was sort of a safe haven for her.”

They made sure she went to therapy, finished high school, took steps toward becoming a firefighter — she’s in the last stages of getting certified — and did not let her potential be derailed by her past.

“I yell at her and I say things to her that I don’t say to the other kids,” Pedro Sr. says. “I make her cry, but she knows I’m doing it because I want her to win.”

The tough-love coach with the blunt approach and gruff exterior also gave her this advice:

“He said, ‘You know, kid, eventually you’re going to have to get over it. It happened to you, but it doesn’t define you,’ ” Harrison says.

Aiming toward London

Competitions, which had held such appeal for Harrison when she first started, initially were stressful after her move. Even though Harrison, as a minor, had not been named in news reports about Doyle, online judo message boards were rife with speculation about the case.

“When you have that kind of attention, it doesn’t feel good,” Harrison says. “So I became very anxious. I had huge anxiety about tournaments.”

It fueled her trademark tenacity on the mat. In 2008, even though the Pedros had shifted her from the 63-kilogram (139-pound) weight class, where she constantly had to fret about her diet and cut weight, to 78 kilograms (172 pounds), she won the prestigious U.S. Open, a junior world title and the Olympic team trials.

Because the USA had not qualified the 78-kilogram class for the 2008 Games, the 5-8 Harrison went as a training partner for Rousey.

“I think having the experience of seeing the other athletes from our program go , and seeing Rousey win a bronze medal after watching how she trained here, helped set the tone for what Kayla needed to do,” Pedro says.

By last year, Harrison was unstoppable. She won five World Cup gold medals and the world championships. Her world title was the USA’s first since Pedro won in 1999.

She entered this year’s world championships determined to become the first U.S. judo player to win back-to-back titles. She came away with bronze.

“I let the stress get to me a little bit,” Harrison says. “… now I know what to expect and I’m not going to have that kind of pressure going into the Olympics.”

She is going to have a compelling story to tell and a resonant message to send, especially if she ends up standing on the podium in London.

“It would be,” her mom says, “a life victory.”

Contributing: Gary Mihoces
Source: USAToday – http://usat.ly/QJYdxP