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OLYMPICS

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

After being sexually abused as a teenager, she has rallied to become a world champion and, at London Olympics, could become the first U.S. athlete to win an Olympic judo title.

April 26, 2012|By Kevin Baxter

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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