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.
“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.’ ’’
So Harrison is in Japan this week for a camp with 400 other women. From there, she goes to China for more training. Then there are the Pan Am Championships in Montreal, possibly the World Cup in Miami, then the Moscow Grand Slam and a tournament in the Czech Republic.
Then it’s London, where the mind-script she runs through every night is designed to produce the first gold medal by an American judoka.
If Aug. 2 turns out to be the day Harrison figures it will, she might call it a career, even though she’d still be a contender for 2016.
“I’ve only had two goals in my life—one is to be world champion and the other is to be Olympic champion—so if I reach those goals, I’m probably going to call it quits,’’ she said. “If I don’t win the Olympics, I’ll definitely go for 2016, but I plan on winning it so I plan on putting that gi in the back of my closet.’’
Harrison still would like to go to college (“I’m one of those weirdos who loves school’’), and she’s at the top of the list to be a firefighter in Marblehead, where she lives. For the next five months, though, her purpose is to prepare for one day.
“Honestly, I’m in a really good place,’’ Harrison said. “I just got engaged. I just won a butt-load of tournaments. I’m going to the Olympic Games, the highest stage for my sport, the best of the best. So I’m happy.’’John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.