Last week, Olympian Kayla Harrison won the first gold medal for the United States in judo. But Harrison’s path to the gold had more than the usual competitive obstacles.
The 22-year-old judo champion was sexually molested for years by her coach, who had trained her and accompanied her to tournaments world-wide.
In November 2007, a man pleaded guilty in a federal court in Dayton, Ohio, to illicit sexual conduct involving a 13-year-old girl. He was a judo coach, and the girl was a student he had trained closely and brought to international tournaments. Her name was given in court papers simply as “K.H.” or “the victim.”
“K.H” was Kayla Harrison.
Harrison arrived in Brazil as the team’s favorite.
Of the Americans on the judo team here, Harrison was the favorite, though in the hurried gantlet of matches on Thursday she had to take on a Brazilian who was No. 1 in the world and, in the gold medal bout, a British woman, Gemma Gibbons, who was something of an underdog but still an overwhelming crowd darling. Some opponents in the 78-kilogram class Harrison threw to the ground; others she beat on points when the clock expired.
After winning her gold, Harrison spoke to the media.
The questions she fielded at the end of her match, about what she was thinking on the podium, about what the medal means to her, about how this compares to her own struggles, could be wince-inducing in their coy inquiries into such a painful topic.
“It’s no secret,” she said, responding to a reporter who asked her to name the worst moment she had to face in her career, “that I was sexually abused by my former coach. And that was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome.”
Harrison came forward with her story during the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal. She spoke out to multiple media outlets describing:
how her coach had insinuated himself into the family, how sexual contact led to sexual intercourse over a period of years, on trips to Venezuela, Russia and Estonia, until she was 16. She told about finally revealing this to a friend (a firefighter who would become her fiancé) and then to her mother, who smashed out the coach’s car windows with a baseball bat. (The former coach, Daniel Doyle, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and banned from the sport.)
And she told about how she was a mess — desperate, unhappy and ready to give up on everything — when within weeks her mother, Jeannie Yazell, took her from Ohio to study judo with Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jim Pedro Sr., at Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass.
“She was broken,” said Corinne Shigemoto, the chief operating officer for USA Judo, the sport’s national federation. “She really needed direction — not only in her personal life, she needed direction in her judo life. They said, ‘Look, this is the plan.’ In a way, it was easy. As soon as she accepted this is what she wanted, in a way there was no thinking about it.”
Pedro has been instrumental in Harrison’s success. She began to train once again and began the journey that would take her to Rio 2016 and to a gold medal.
Harrison has a foundation called The Fearless Foundation: The mission of the FEARLESS FOUNDATION is to shine a light on the darkness that is child sexual abuse and to enrich the lives of survivors through education and sport, leading survivors to mastery and enabling them to flourish in all aspects of life.