Gymnastics has the Karolyis, the super-strict husband/wife team that coached household names like Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and Kerri Strug to Olympic gold.
Judo has the Pedros, a super-strict father/son team trying to turn Kayla Harrison, Travis Stevens and Nick Delpopolo into household names in London.
It’s a tall order. The United States has never won an Olympic gold medal in Judo. But this year, the U.S. has a shot.
“I’m on the U.S. Olympic judo team,” Harrison said. “Technically that’s all I am right now. I’m also world champion, but that doesn’t matter.”
Punches aren’t allowed in judo, but U.S. head coach Jimmy Pedro doesn’t pull any when he laid out his goals for Kayla in London. “Physically and mentally, we’re preparing her to win the Olympics, nothing less than gold,” Pedro said.
Pedro kept the mood light at Team USA’s last official training camp in Wakefield, Mass. As Jimmy joined his athletes on the mat for sparring practice, his father, “Big Jim,” sat on the sidelines barking instructions at the athletes.
“Let’s go, grip!” Big Jim was heard yelling. “Come on Kayla, grip. To your right.”
Harrison has been training with the Pedros since she was 16, when she moved to Wakefield from Middletown, Ohio. Big Jim said there’s no one he’s been harder on than her.
“Thing is with Kayla…I never stopped yelling at her, ’cause I wanted her to get better, but I do a lot more talking to her, you know I talked to her an awful lot, I still do now, we talk all the time about life and her problems,” Big Jim said.
The “problems” to which Big Jim euphemistically referred had started by the time Harrison was 13, when her judo coach in Ohio, Daniel Doyle, began sexually abusing her. When Harrison’s mother, Jeannie Yazell, found out, she immediately pressed charges, against her daughter’s wishes. Judo was the means by which an abuser had gained access to her daughter, but Yazell also saw the sport as the path to her daughter’s recovery.
“I knew that she loved judo, she did not love Daniel Doyle,” Yazell said. “I knew she loved judo and that would pull her back in.”
Eventually, Doyle was banned from judo for life and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence. But, while the coach was out on bond, to put distance between Kayla and her abuser, Yazell packed a U-Haul and trusted her daughter to the Pedros.
“It was miserable,” Yazell said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was the hardest thing for our entire family. I mean, trust? I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t trust anybody, at all…period.”
Jimmy Pedro said he and his father didn’t go easy on Harrison.
“You can’t treat her with kid gloves and pity her and feel sorry for her,” Jimmy said. “You have to let her know that we’re here to support you, we’re here to help you and we’ll get you back on track, but the reality is it did happen, we need to lock this guy up and put him behind bars, and you need to move on to make you a stronger person.”
At first, Harrison hated the Pedros, her mother and judo. But eventually, the sport became her outlet for all the negative emotions that had built up over years of abuse. Today, Harrison says she wants to be a person who helps people, the way the Pedros helped her. Jimmy Pedro couldn’t be more proud.
“I think Kayla has really, she’s drank the Kool-Aid,” he said. “She believes it. She lives it. she’s the epitome of what I was trying to create in my program, and we’re very very proud of what she’s become as a person.”
Although rumors had been swirling in the judo community for years, Harrison only began speaking out about the abuse recently. It’s clear she doesn’t enjoy talking about it, but she did it because she was infuriated by her peers at Penn State who rioted in support of Joe Paterno instead of standing up for the victims of Jerry Sandusky.
And, she did it because she knew that a gold-medal favorite speaking out in an Olympic year would bring more attention to judo, a sport she loves dearly. But mostly, she did it because she could.
“If you had talked to me when I was 16, I would have been stammering and I wouldn’t have been able to look you in the eye and I would have been breaking out in a cold sweat,” Harrison said. “Now I’m a strong, confident young woman who has a goal and has a dream and knows where she wants to go in life. So, yeah, I’m willing to share that with people and I hope they respond to it well and if they don’t…I’m a strong, confident young woman who has a goal and a dream and doesn’t care what everyone thinks.”
Yazell said if her daughter won gold, it would be a “life win,” as if her abuser had never brought her down. But, she resisted the idea that everything Harrison endured is what makes her a contender. She said Kayla was always strong enough to win an Olympic gold medal.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this world who works harder than her,” Yazell said. “She’s a worker. She’s a perseverer. She’s a very strong, confident, caring and competent woman and there’s nobody in this world that I know like her. No one.”
Harrison will compete in judo’s 78-kilogram weight category on August 2.