Olympics: Judoka's coverage sheds light on darkest corner

By James Lawton

Kayla Harrison with her gold medal. Picture / AP
Kayla Harrison with her gold medal. Picture / AP

As Kayla Harrison strived for a judo gold medal yesterday - the first in United States history - it was one of those occasions which remind you that sometimes the margin between victory and defeat is so fine that in a vital way it ceases to exist.

Certainly, you could make such an assessment of the Olympic fate of the 22-year-old who a few years ago was found sobbing uncontrollably in the corridor of a US courthouse. It was the day she gave the evidence that put her coach from childhood away for 10 years for sexual abuse.

Not surprisingly for many - and maybe not least Harrison, ranked world No2 in her 78kg category - yesterday was as much an exorcism as a last push for glory.

She reached her goal, beating Britain's Gemma Gibbons 2-0 for the gold medal.

Recently she recalled the point of collapse as she prepared to face the sentencing of Daniel Doyle, a man she had seen as her "sun".

"In my mind back then I still felt it was my fault," she said. "I felt I had done something wrong and he was going to jail. I should be in trouble. That it took two to tango.

"I thought it had been a real relationship - and that I loved him and he loved me. I thought I was going to marry him."

She was 13 when the abuse started. When he was charged, Doyle was ordered not to make contact with her but, according to Harrison's mother, he continued to do so, using disposable phones and ordering his victim to do the same.

"When you're in a situation like I was - training at a high level - you do have to be close to your coaches. And from the time I was 8 years old until I was 16 Daniel Doyle was my sun.

"My world revolved around him and I wanted to do nothing but please him."

A month after the first revelation, Harrison's family moved her 1500km from her Ohio home to Massachusetts and the care of Jimmy Pedro, an Olympic medallist and the son of Big Jim Pedro, doyen of American judo coaches. Harrison was also getting other phone calls telling her not to go to court. She was told it was all nonsense, something that had happened only in her head.

The Pedro family became her guardians and Jimmy reports: "We could help her with her judo skills but first we had to put her life in peace. She had to face this person in court, put him behind bars and move on with her life. We told her, 'What you are doing is 100 per cent correct and we stand behind you'."

Big Jim added: 'Look, she's not 100 per cent. There will always be scars. But she's a lot stronger than she was. She has got her life back."

After Harrison's triumph yesterday, her coach said: "It was meant to be." The two-time Olympic bronze medallist added: "This is your destiny, Kayla Harrison."

There have been a disconcertingly high number of cases reported down the years, with the most high-profile no doubt coming from Olga Korbut, the angel of Munich who enchanted the world with her brilliance in the gymnastic hall of the 1972 Games, who claimed she had been the "sex slave" of her coach as a teenager.

Seventeen years ago Paul Hickson, Britain's head swimming coach at Seoul, was sentenced to 17 years' imprisonment when 13 of his former charges reported sexual abuse.

Harrison is quick to speak of the support she has received from the Pedro family and has spoken of the uplift that comes when you learn to trust someone with whom you are obliged to work every day.

Back in Ohio, she tearfully told a judge that her desire to compete at a high level in sport had turned her passion into a form of imprisonment.

Now she is liberated and can add her voice to all those who speak of their coaches as men and women of vital, selfless guidance. But first she had to shed some light on an extremely dark place. No one could dispute that she did it with gold-medal courage. Independent

- NZ Herald

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