Olympic Champion Kayla Harrison Fighting To Change Lives

By Brad Botkin | July 22, 2014, 7:10 p.m. (ET)

Kayla Harrison attends her homecoming party at Empire Restaurant and Lounge on Aug. 19, 2012 in Boston.

When Jimmy Pedro first saw Kayla Harrison on a judo mat back in 2005, he knew he was looking at a girl who needed help. Harrison was 16 years old at the time. They were at a tournament in Italy, where, in Pedro’s words, Harrison had “a miserable performance,” losing all four of her matches. Afterward, Pedro, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, pulled Harrison aside. 

“I told her, ‘If you want to take your judo to the next level, my door is always open,’” Pedro said.

Not too long after that, Pedro got a call from Harrison’s mom, Jeannie Yazell.

Her daughter, indeed, needed help. 

***

By now, Harrison's story has been told hundreds of times. She first went public with it in the fall leading up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, where Harrison became the first American, male or female, to win an Olympic gold medal in judo — telling USA Today that she had been sexually abused for years, beginning when she was just 13, by her former coach, Daniel Doyle. Harrison is comfortable talking about her story now, but it wasn't always that way. There was a time when she wasn't even sure that she wanted to live anymore.

"I was so young," Harrison said. "I mean, I honestly thought that I loved him (Doyle). I thought that's what love was.”

“I cried a lot,” Harrison said with an uneasy laugh.

It wasn't until Harrison was 16 that she finally told her mom what was happening to her. That's when Yazell, who had competed in judo through college, remembered the conversation with Pedro in Italy and decided to give the coach a call.

"She was devastated for her daughter," Pedro said. "She didn't know what to do, but she felt strongly that she wanted Kayla to continue with the sport, to not lose that, too."

Shortly thereafter, Yazell packed up her daughter and moved her from their home in Ohio to Wakefield, Massachusetts, to live and train with Pedro and his father, Jimmy Pedro Sr., at Pedro's Judo Center. She thought that a fresh start in a new place might be the only chance Harrison had to come through the storm.

“She was in a bad place when she showed up,” Pedro said of Harrison. "Her whole world was upside down, and I think she wanted to just sort of disappear. But that girl is a fighter. We eventually got her enrolled in high school. My father and I took on the role of pseudo-parents. We got her talking to a therapist, Dr. Blaise Aguirre, who is world renowned for his work with abuse victims, and slowly, she started to come around.”

Kayla Harrison
Kayla Harrison (R) and Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain compete in the women's -78 kg judo final at the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on Aug. 2, 2012 in London.

At this point, judo was clearly taking a backseat to Harrison’s personal recovery, but at the same time, both Pedro and Harrison are quick to point out that the two went hand in hand. The discipline, the confidence building, the inward reflection of the martial artist, all of it was growing for Harrison, who was now part of a family of judokas that also lived and trained with the Pedros and went by the name Team Force. 

“Just being around those other athletes like Marti Malloy and Travis Stevens, athletes with Olympic ambition, really helped Kayla,” said Pedro. “She really began to connect with what it means to live and train like a champion.”

“With everything I was going through, judo was the one thing that I could control,” Harrison added. “It changed my whole mindset. I went from feeling like a victim to having a purpose.”

Having gained 20 pounds of muscle, Harrison, who went on to win the 2008 junior world championship and the 2010 world championship, was certainly on the radar heading into London in 2012. But when she decided to go public with her story, her name was suddenly everywhere. Then, when she upset a Brazilian who was No. 1 in the world in the semifinals, and then defeated Britain’s Gemma Gibbons for the gold medal, she became an enduring symbol of hope and inspiration, her victory embodying the purity and spirit of both Olympic and personal triumph. 

“Back when we first started working together, from a technical standpoint, if you would’ve asked me if I thought Kayla would be standing here today with an Olympic gold medal, I would’ve said no, probably not,” said Pedro. “But you can’t teach the tenacity of a champion. The great ones, when push comes to shove, you’re going to have to kill them to beat them. Not every athlete has that in them. Kayla has it.”

Since Harrison’s victory in London, she has been swarmed with requests to tell her story. She hasn’t shied away from it once. In fact, she sees it as her personal responsibility to use the platform she’s been afforded to call attention to the fact that 1 out 4 girls, and 1 out of 6 boys, will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18. 

“And that’s just the statistics we know about,” Harrison said. “It’s an epidemic. It happens all the time in sports. I mean, you wouldn’t just show up and hand the keys to your car or your house to a stranger, but for some reason, every day we leave our young kids with coaches without knowing anything about who they are. Not everyone in the world is nice.”

After pleading guilty in 2007 to illicit sexual conduct with a 13-year-old girl, Harrison’s former coach is currently serving a 10-year federal prison sentence.

With this in mind, Harrison, largely in conjunction with the Pedros and Team Force, is in the beginning stages of developing an all-encompassing support network for victims and survivors of sexual abuse. There will be a judo school — in the future, hopefully, it will expand to other sports — where kids can come and learn from some of the best athletes in the world. There will be access to doctors and therapists, even online counselors. Harrison is also writing a book, using her story as a guideline to show kids what, exactly, sexual abuse looks and feels like, and what they can do to get help.

“The Pedros saved my life. Judo saved my life,” Harrison said. “Maybe I can help to do that for someone else. Winning a gold medal is great, but this is my chance to make a real change in the world.”

As for her own career, Harrison says she fully intended to move on from the sport after London. “But,” she said, “standing there with a gold medal around your neck, words can’t describe the high of knowing you’re the best in the world.”

So she’s looking ahead to Rio in 2016, where she’ll attempt to defend not just her own gold medal, but the higher, now world-class standard of American judo she has been so instrumental in building. See, Kayla Harrison, she changes things. She makes a difference. She leaves a lasting imprint on everything she touches. 

“Kayla has helped our sport so much,” Pedro said. “We now have not just an Olympic champion, but an Olympic champion with a story people want to root for. A story that inspires. People want to follow Kayla, and as a result they follow judo. And you need that interest. Right now, we’re better than we’ve ever been as a country. Besides Kayla, we have athletes like Marti Malloy and Travis Stevens, who are both ranked in the top four in the world.

“Even myself,” Pedro continued. “I have been in this sport since I was 2 years old. My dad’s been in it his whole life, too. When Kayla won, she won for herself, for a girl who went from questioning whether she wanted to live to being on top of the world. But she also won for all the people who have devoted their entire lives to this sport. It’s not just Russia and Japan and these powerhouse judo nations anymore. Kayla is the symbol that we’ve made it, that the work of so many won’t be forgotten. Kayla’s story will live forever.”

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