In Kayla Harrison, U.S. Has Chance For Judo Gold, And A 'Comeback Kid' Story : The Torch Kayla Harrison, 22, is the best chance the United States has to win its first Olympic gold medal in the sport of judo. Like many of the world's best athletes, Harrison's road to London wasn't easy.

In Kayla Harrison, U.S. Has Chance For Judo Gold, And A 'Comeback Kid' Story

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The U.S. has never won Olympic gold in judo. This year, 22-year-old Kayla Harrison is the country's best chance. Like many of the world's best athletes, her road to London wasn't easy. Reporter Karen Given has her story.

KAREN GIVEN, BYLINE: Since she was little, Kayla Harrison has only had two goals - to win a world championship, which she did in 2010; and to win an Olympic gold medal, which she'll attempt for the first time, in London.

KAYLA HARRISON: I can't believe it's here. I'm so excited, and I'm ready to go.

GIVEN: But on the second-to-the-last morning of the team's final official training camp before the Olympics, Harrison is frustrated. As she tries the same move again and again - only to have it fail against her bigger, stronger, male sparring partners - Harrison looks for help from USA Judo's assistant coach, "Big Jim" Pedro.

"BIG JIM" PEDRO: Nah. You can't - you can't chicken-wing and let go, Kayla. It's a waste of attack. You can't chicken-wing and let go.

GIVEN: Big Jim is known for yelling at his athletes. Harrison's heard plenty. Pedro became her surrogate father figure when she moved to Wakefield, Massachusetts, from Middletown, Ohio, at the age of 16.

: The thing is with Kayla - is that I yell. If I - I never stop yelling at her because I wanted her to get better. But I do a lot more talking to her, you know. I talk to her an awful - I still do now, you know. We would talk all the time about life and problems - whatever.

GIVEN: The problems to which Pedro euphemistically refers had started by the time Harrison was 13, when her judo coach in Ohio began sexually abusing her. When Harrison's mom, Jeannie Yazell, found out, she saw judo not only as the means by which an abuser had gained access to her daughter, but also the means to her daughter's recovery.

JEANNIE YAZELL: I knew she loved judo, and that that would pull her back in.

GIVEN: To put distance between Harrison and her abuser while he was awaiting trial, Yazell sent her daughter to train with the Pedros, Big Jim and his son Jimmy, the head coach of Team USA.

JIMMY PEDRO: We're real people and have real conversations with her. And you can't treat her with kid gloves and pity her, and feel sorry for her. And you have to sort of let her know that you need to face it, you need to end it, and you need to move on and use it to, you know, make you a stronger person.

GIVEN: At first, Harrison hated the Pedros, her mother and judo. But eventually, the sport became the outlet for the negative emotions that had built up over years of abuse. Her former coach was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but it was the Penn State child abuse scandal that inspired Harrison to speak out. Sharing her story has brought uncomfortable questions, but she has no regrets.

HARRISON: Do I wish that everyone would just talk about how - you know, awesome I am, and how I could be the - America's first Olympic gold medalist? Yes, I wish that. But America wants that comeback kid story. They want the person who overcame obstacles to reach their goals. And I fit that bill pretty well.

GIVEN: Jeannie Yazell says her daughter has always been strong enough to be an Olympian. But if she were to bring home Olympic gold, it would be even more proof that Kayla Harrison is stronger than her former abuser.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Given in Boston.


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