Kayla Harrison remembers watching on television last fall as Penn State students rioted after the firing of longtime football coach Joe Paterno, the rage slowly building inside of her.
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”Who cares if he loses his job,” she thought to herself. ”That’s not what this is about.”
The former world judo champion had revealed last fall that she was subjected to years of sexual abuse by a former coach, not unlike the allegations that have been leveled against former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky – the heart of a scandal that has engulfed Happy Valley.
”I was having discussions, even with some of my friends, and they were like, `It’s not JoePa’s fault. Why is the media on them?”’ Harrison said Sunday. ”I was looking at them, and I was thinking to myself, `How can you be saying that when there’s such a bigger picture?”’
Paterno, who died in January, was fired last November after 46 seasons when the Penn State board of trustees determined that he had not appropriately handled the sex abuse allegations.
Hundreds of students took to the streets of State College, Pa., to protest the firing of the winningest coach in major college football. They filled two city blocks, overturned a media van and chanted ”Hell no, Joe won’t go,” before they were finally dispersed by police.
”This is about multiple people having their lives changed forever,” Harrison said. ”I got in arguments about it. I got in fights about it. And seeing kids riot, my age, thinking that’s OK – I just felt they didn’t deserve a college education. I just thought, `What is wrong with you?”’
Harrison’s own abuse started when she was about 13 years old.
She was already a promising judo player when she started training at an academy run by Daniel Doyle’s father in Centerville, Ohio. Doyle eventually became her coach, and a sexual relationship began that continued for at least three years and in several different countries.
The relationship didn’t end until Harrison let details of it slip to a friend, who in turn told Harrison’s mother. She pressed charges almost immediately.
Doyle pleaded guilty in November 2007 to one count of ”engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place,” and is now serving a 10-year federal prison sentence.
”You’re with your coach sometimes more than you’re with your family,” Harrison said during a gathering of Olympians in Dallas. ”I can’t tell you how many times I trained on Christmas or had to fly to Abu Dhabi on Thanksgiving. You spend those moments with your coaches and you spend every waking hour both striving for that same goal and it causes things like that to happen.”
Harrison eventually moved to Boston at the behest of her mother, and she now trains with Jim Pedro Sr. and his son, Jimmy Pedro, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist.
”It was something that she needed to go through, but was extremely difficult,” said Travis Stevens, her teammate on the U.S. national team. ”It was a hurdle she needed to accomplish in her life so that she can focus on the Olympics.”
Two years ago, Harrison defeated Mayra Aguiar of Brazil in the 78-kilogram final to become the first American woman to win a gold medal at the judo world championships since 1984. And now she’s among the favorites to win the first Olympic judo gold medal in U.S. history.
Still, Harrison didn’t speak publicly about her abuse until late last year, about the same time the Penn State scandal was unfolding. She didn’t want her sport associated with something so troubling, and even now worries that people will view her in a different light.
”Unfortunately for me, judo is getting a lot of attention because of my story, and not because I am a world champion and I could win the Olympics for the first time,” she said.
”This happened to me. It’s part of my story. But there’s also this great big thing called the Olympics that I could win, and that’s a part of me, too.”
Harrison admits that it’s hard to talk about the abuse.
Her hands still shake a little bit from the surge of adrenaline, and the first six times she talked about it, ”I cried every single time.” But she also called herself a success story, because she’s put the abuse in her past and is still pursuing her Olympic dreams.
”I would never wish it on my worst enemy, ever, but it has shaped who I am,” she said. ”I don’t take things for granted. Especially being so depressed, I realize every day is a gift.”