Kayla Harrison not only threw her opponents to the mat in becoming the first American ever to win an Olympic gold medal in judo, she became an inspiration for childhood sexual abuse victims desperate to throw off their sense of trauma. For three years, beginning at age 13, Harrison was sexually abused by a coach who is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. Later, Harrison began training in Wakefield under two-time Olympic bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jim Pedro, Sr. It was not easy at first, as she arrived with virtually no self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, and contemplated quitting judo “every day for about a year and a half,” she has said.
The Pedros gave her emotional sanctuary, found her therapy, and honed her athletic skills. Harrison told USA Today that Jimmy’s mantra was, “It happened to you, but it doesn’t define you.” Harrison went public with her abuse after former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted for abusing boys. She was enraged by the outpouring of support for the late coach Joe Paterno, who was a key Sandusky enabler. “How could those people be rallying for the coach when there are multiple victims?” she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Now, Harrison says, she plans to use her gold-medal pedestal to rally for those who suffer in silence. “You’re only a victim if you allow yourself to be,” she declared. With her advocacy, many more demons are going to be thrown to the mat.