Judo's Kayla Harrison finds sanctuary — and perhaps Olympic gold

WAKEFIELD, Mass. — For more than a year, the guilt and shame overwhelmed Kayla Harrison, even though she had done nothing wrong.

"I can't describe how I felt," she says quietly. "I think I cried pretty much every night."

She also thought about suicide — even tried to run away from home once. Then she decided to stand and fight.

Sexually abused by her judo coach for three years as a teenager, Harrison did what few in her position ever find the courage to do: confront her attacker in court. It didn't end there, though, because while Daniel Doyle pleaded guilty and received a 10-year prison sentence, it was Harrison who had to pick up the pieces of a shattered life.

This is where tragedy becomes a story of triumph. Fleeing infamy in small-town Ohio for anonymity in suburban Boston, Harrison enrolled at Pedro's Judo Center, an unlikely sanctuary managed by Jimmy Pedro and his father, Big Jim.

Together they got her into school and into therapy, rebuilt her confidence and restored her love for judo. And she rewarded them with a world championship, an accomplishment she could top this summer by becoming the first U.S. athlete to win an Olympic judo title.

"As corny as it sounds, as melodramatic as it sounds, it's true. The Pedros saved my life and they changed my life," Harrison says. "I don't even want to think about what would have happened to me if I had stayed there."

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Pedro's Judo Center isn't the kind of place you'd find by accident, hidden as it is behind a concrete company and an abandoned rail spur on the edge of a city settled more than a century before the American revolution.

The studio itself, a cantankerous blend of sweat and shouts, sits on the second floor of a warehouse, 25 steps up a narrow stairway lined with seven framed Olympic posters. Yet it has become something of a second home to the 21-year-old Harrison, who, during the short break between two hours of weightlifting and two hours on the judo mat, grabs a chicken sandwich and a salad and heads for the relative quiet of the Pedros' office for lunch.

It's been five years — nearly a quarter of her life — since Harrison moved to northeastern Massachusetts, and in that time she has graduated from high school and become engaged. So for her, the past is just that: the past.

Yet it's also something she'll never be able to fully put behind her since it's the reason she left home to join the Pedros' gym, setting in motion the events that have her poised on the threshold of U.S. Olympic history.

"My story would have been different," she says. "I wouldn't be where I am today."

Nor would the Pedros, who have turned the pursuit of America's first Olympic judo title into something of a family crusade.

After Jimmy Pedro Sr. — Big Jim — narrowly missed making the U.S. team for the 1976 Games, he became obsessed with learning everything he could about the sport. That meant traveling the country and sitting alone for hours in drafty gymnasiums, where he'd watch anonymous athletes compete. That would eventually cost him a wife, but his eldest son, Jimmy Jr., became a four-time Olympian and a two-time bronze medalist.

In the last Olympics in Beijing, the Pedros came close again before middleweight Ronda Rousey settled for another bronze. But in Harrison, both men agree, that gold may finally be within reach.

"That would be an achievement of a lifetime," says Jimmy Jr., who runs the studio that bears his family's name.

Harrison was introduced to judo after following her mother, a black belt, into the gym when she was 6. As a girl, Harrison loved being the center of attention, and the camaraderie and competitiveness she found in the sport allowed her to do that. And she progressed so quickly that by age 8 she had joined the elite Renshuden Judo Academy in Centerville, Ohio, which is where she met Doyle, a coach 16 years her senior.

Doyle quickly became a trusted family friend, babysitting Harrison and her two siblings, accompanying them on vacations and hosting sleepovers at his home. He also coached Harrison to two national titles before her 15th birthday while, according to court documents, maintaining a sexual relationship that began when she was 13 and continued on trips to competitions in three countries.

Eventually, she began confiding in a judo friend, Aaron Handy, and he took the details to Harrison's mother, who immediately contacted police.

"Going through that, I felt so guilty," admits Harrison, who says she eventually grew uncomfortable with the relationship but felt she had been "brainwashed" and wanted to do whatever she could to please her coach.

"This is the man that I thought I loved," she says. "And I just told on him and I put him in jail."

At first her parents wanted her to quit judo, which had consumed her. But they soon came to see the sport as the quickest way for her to regain control of her life. So at an age when most kids are learning to drive, Harrison was moving alone to Boston, where the Pedros offered emotional support and a place to train.

But they did it through their own brand of tough love, with the demanding and blunt-spoken Big Jim often bringing Harrison to tears — especially when he insisted she jump up two weight classes, going from 139 to 172 pounds.

"There were times where I hated judo," says Harrison, who scrawled "I hate my life!" across several pages of a journal she kept, yet never acted on her frequent thoughts of suicide.

"I hated my mom. I hated everyone," she remembers. "And I didn't want to be that girl anymore. I didn't want to be the girl who was strong and who pushed through and who made it.

"I wanted to run away to New York and just start over."

She almost made it too. Her bags were packed and she was about to leave the house she shared with several other athletes in the Pedros' stable when Handy, who had also moved from Ohio to train with the Pedros, intervened again and talked her into staying.

"He took care of me," Harrison says. "He was constantly there. He was my rock."

Now he's her fiance as well. And in that role he has grown protective, answering questions about Harrison's past curtly and in as few words as possible.

"It's seemed that everyone's talking about that and not about her drive," he finally says. "It's always about what happened and then she overcame that to succeed. Not that she worked hard to succeed."

Watch Harrison in the weight room, her shoulder-length blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and her face flush and bathed in sweat, and it's hard not to be impressed by her work ethic. Although she's put on more than 30 pounds in the last four years, little of that is fat, leaving her with the chiseled upper body and sculpted biceps of a middleweight boxer. That strength allows her to fight standing up and moving forward, avoiding the lazy "drop and flop" style many female judo athletes fall into.

"It's the disciplined system," Jimmy Pedro says when asked what has turned Harrison into an Olympic favorite. "The gripping. The relentless pursuit of the opponent. It's the mentality of being a champion. Shut up and do it. No excuses."

Back in the Pedros' office, Harrison is finishing lunch when she too brings up the gold medal. Vivacious and outgoing, she has come full circle from the sullen, depressed girl she was the first time she stepped into this gym five years ago. Laughter has replaced the tears, and the gold medal, should it come, would be the final proof that she had beaten her old coach.

"Not only did I survive, but I'm the Olympic champion in spite of that," she says, imagining that day. "I did it anyway. You tore me down. These things happened. I had all these roadblocks. But I did it anyway."

Harrison then allows herself the last laugh before adding: "It's a better story that way."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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