Coming to Grips at Last

America's first family of judo offers rising star Kayla Harrison a safe haven
March 05, 2012

The giant studio in the Boston suburb of Wakefield smells of sweat and echoes with grunts and thuds—hardly what one would expect of a setting hailed as an affirming sanctuary by a 21-year-old woman who has spent far too long looking for just that. But Kayla Harrison happens to be the finest judoka in the country, and the mats and pads of Pedro's Judo Center suit her just fine. "It's become my home," says Harrison. "New goals, new hopes." Start with this one: This summer Harrison could become America's first Olympic judo champion. The U.S. has won 10 judo medals, but never gold, at the Games. Two of those medals—both bronze—went to Jimmy Pedro. In 1999 he won the country's last world title, before coaching Harrison to victory at the worlds in Tokyo in 2010. "This is what we've given our lives for," says Pedro (right, with Harrison), whose father, Big Jim, an Olympic alternate in 1976, coaches with him. "If Kayla won, we could almost retire from judo. We'd have done it."

In Harrison's eyes they've already done far more than that. For at least three years, until she was 16, Kayla was sexually abused by her then coach, Daniel Doyle (who pleaded guilty to illegal sexual conduct and is now serving 10 years in jail). "When I was 15, I was extremely suicidal," she says. "I still thought I loved him. He was my sun. I wanted his approval. In my journal I wrote to God asking for strength to do the right thing. Then I'd ask if anyone would really miss me." She filled whole pages with the repeated words, "I hate my life."

In May 2007 her mother and stepfather sent Kayla from her home in Middletown, Ohio, to the Pedros, as much for their character as for their coaching. Harrison welcomed the move. Coming to terms with the abuse has been far harder. "Once people knew what happened," she says, "I worried they'd avoid me or think I was weird." Instead the Pedros embraced and drove her. They insisted she finish high school and attend therapy. They moved her up two weight classes, from 139 pounds to 172, so she wouldn't have to cut weight. Almost daily Big Jim told her not to let the past define her. "You can't find a nicer person," says Jimmy. "She's always putting other people ahead of herself."

Harrison followed her gold at the 2010 worlds with a bronze in '11. She knows that if she plays to her strengths in London, she has a real chance at gold again. But her hunger to reach the top of the medal stand goes beyond the desire for personal glory. Harrison trains now with greater goals in mind: speaking about her past so other young victims can find courage to come forward, and filling the void for the family that has filled hers. "If I do win, it's not just for me," she says. "It's for Jimmy and Big Jim. I owe them my life."

THEY SAID IT

"I should have fought with my jewelry on."

ADRIEN BRONER

Undefeated WBO super featherweight champion, marveling at how infrequently he was hit on his way to a fourth-round knockout of Eloy Perez last Saturday.

HISTORY LESSON

SIGNING OFF

The Angels had a highly visible problem last week, learning only after they'd erected 20 billboards touting new slugger Albert Pujols as EL HOMBRE that the former Cardinal didn't approve. (He defers to Stan Musial as the Man.) Also blindsided by a broadside: Dolphins QB Matt Moore, who after going a surprising 6--6 last year saw a fan-funded MANNING TO MIAMI marquee go up. As this brief history of billboard-athlete pairings suggests, not all signs point to good things.

With the Broncos off to a 1--4 start in '11, three Denver brothers turned their company's electronic board into a plea for coach John Fox to change QBs. Tebow Time started a week later—but not before fellow Broncos QBs fined Tebow for failing to speak out against the sign.

When the Vikings lost in the '10 NFC Championship Game, a Minneapolis DJ used Vikesfans4favre.com to raise $650 for a billboard in aging QB Brett Favre's hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., begging him to play another season. Favre obliged—and had a career-worst year while the Vikes went 6--10.

After stealing striker Carlos Tevez out from under the nose of neighboring Manchester United in 2009, Man City erected a nose-thumbing sign downtown. United laughed last, however, posting their own sign, welcome to carlos, after Tevez's recent falling-out with City.

PHOTOJEFF CURRY/US PRESSWIRE (BRONER) PHOTOWINSLOW TOWNSON (HARRISON) PHOTORON CHENOY/US PRESSWIRE (TEBOW SIGN) PHOTOMATT BUSH/THE HATTIESBURG AMERICAN/AP (FAVRE SIGN) PHOTODAVE THOMPSON/PA WIRE/PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES (TEVEZ SIGN)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)