Team Kayla

Nobody gets to the Olympics alone. Young athletes on the road to glory are surrounded by people who want to help. But as Kayla Harrison and her mother found out, that’s not always a good thing.

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It’s early summer in Middletown, and on a quiet street of modest homes a riot of rose bushes is overtaking the path to Jeannie Yazell’s door. “I haven’t had time to prune them,” she says, apologizing for the tangle of overgrown canes. And who knows when she’ll get to them? She is preoccupied.

Jeannie and her family and friends are going to London this summer to watch Jeannie’s daughter, 22-year-old Kayla Harrison, compete in the Olympics. If you don’t know Kayla’s name, it’s probably because she is not a runner or a swimmer or a perky, pigtailed, pint-sized gymnast. Kayla is on the judo team, which does not tend to get a lot of broadcast time. The United States has never won Olympic gold in judo, but a lot of people believe that Kayla could change all that.

Kayla and her mother have been working toward this for a long time. If Procter & Gamble did one of those “Thank You, Mom” commercials with Jeannie and Kayla, there would be scenes of alarm clocks and early breakfasts and hours spent on the road, in the gym, and watching from the stands—images that would start when Kayla was, in fact, a perky, pigtailed, pint-sized girl. And if the Thank You Mom camera pulled back, it would show other folks who have been part of the long trek to London: Mike Yazell, Kayla’s stepdad; 17-year-old Aura and 13-year-old Jake, her half-sibs; her grandparents, Barbara and Gary Ogdin; her fiancé, Aaron Handy; and the family friends who’ll fill out the stands when she competes on August 2.

What the Thank You Mom cam would probably not linger on would be credit cards heavy with debt; fast-food meals grabbed on the run; tears at weigh-in. It would certainly not show Kayla turning into an angst-filed, angry teenager or Jeannie taking a baseball bat to her coach’s car. And when the camera pulled back it would not reveal all the people who have been part of Kayla’s success. Police. Prosecutors. An FBI agent. 

It’s a wonderful moment when you see that your child has a passion for something—music, dance, sports. And when other people recognize her potential and believe in her future—believe that she could be a ballerina or cellist or a gold-medal-toting judoka—it’s a turning point. Because you know that if this child’s talent is to be cultivated into a bright adult future, you’ll need them. It takes a village to raise an Olympian.

Jeannie Yazell understood that. What she didn’t understand until it was too late is that there’s no guarantee you can trust all the villagers.

The Yazells’ house is compact, and on my visit the living room is pretty much taken over by “Team Kayla” T-shirts. Many of them are headed to the Hamilton Municipal Courthouse; Jeannie’s dad, Gary Ogdin, is a bailiff, and he has cultivated a fan base for his granddaughter among his colleagues. There’s a spacious, sunny family room across the back of the house where everyone—Jeannie and Mike Yazell, their kids, Aura and Jake, and the Ogdins—has gathered to talk with me about the Olympics, and about the one family member who is MIA—Kayla, who, everyone agrees, gets her determination and her competitive spirit from her mother.

Like Jeannie, says Mike, Kayla “has to have the last word.”

“Like her mother,” says Barb Ogdin, “Kayla has tunnel vision.”

And with the Olympics in sight, Jeannie supposes, “She’s not in the real world now.”

Her family is flush with pre-Olympic fever; but they’ve kind of been this way for most of her judo career, says Barb. “The more she won, the more excited we were.” Barb’s grandmotherly amazement reached its zenith sometime in the spring, she says, when she realized, “I just saw my granddaughter on the Today Show!” Even so, her husband, Gary, is bothered by how little coverage their granddaughter has gotten in the U.S. “People all over Europe know who she is,” he says.

But people in the States who follow judo do know her. She’s the woman who took the gold medal at the World Championships in 2010. She’s the female judoka who can bring opponents to the ground with the kind of breathtaking throws you only expect to see men execute. She’s the pretty blond fighter who signs autographs long after every other competitor has shrugged off the fans and headed to the team bus. She’s @Judo_Kayla, tweeting inspirational messages and upbeat accounts of long, hard training days—and in June, retweeting the news of the day: that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had been convicted on 45 counts of sexual abuse of boys. She sent that out without comment, then went back to the cheerful messages that are her Twitter stock-in-trade: encouragement to her fans, a birthday wish to a teammate, irrepressible enthusiasm for her sport.

How does a 6-year-old get interested in judo? In interviews, Kayla says it was because her mother took judo in college. Her mother, searching back through misty memory, says, “she must have seen it on a TV commercial.” But it’s true that Jeannie did take judo at Sinclair Community College and enjoyed it and was happy to oblige her daughter. Jeannie found a dojo—a judo studio—and the sport joined dance classes and T-ball on the first grader’s calendar.

At first it was just the fun of it, learning to fall and roll and dive, and the grown-up seriousness of the traditions—wearing the uniform of the sport, the sturdy white gi; the ancient practice of bowing to other fighters on the mat and listening with respect to the instructor. Kayla “just loved it,” Jeannie recalls. When Kayla’s first sensei moved, the Yazells found their way to Renshuden Judo Academy in Centerville. Kayla was still just a kid—8 years old—but she entered her first competition and was disappointed when she didn’t win. “You could just see she had the drive, the will, the chutzpah,” says her mother.

As challenging as it was, Kayla’s commitment to judo only intensified. When she was 10, she went to a summer training camp in upstate New York. Back home, she was at the dojo four or five days a week, where Daniel Doyle, the son of the owner, was her coach. Family life was transformed by practices and road trips and the convenience of slow cooker meals. And the better she got, the more intrusive were the demands—like the time a judo official showed up at the house for a random drug test. The family sat with dinner cooling on the table while Kayla, stuck in the bathroom with the visitor, struggled to pee on demand.

Schoolwork never suffered, her mother insists. But if anything else intervened, it was, “I’m missing my judo.” Kayla
was focused, intent, and very disciplined, Jeannie says. And isn’t that what every parent wants?

“My husband says I’ve always lived vicariously through my kids,” admits Jeannie. “I was a competitive runner in school; I always loved the Olympics.”

In 2004, when Kayla was still in junior high, she made it to the Olympic trials. Even though she didn’t go to Athens (her weight class didn’t qualify), Jeannie saw the future unfurling in four-year segments: junior championships, senior championships, national and international events, and all the other contests that would pave the way to the next Olympiad.

It was time-consuming, of course. And costly. Monthly dues at the dojo and gallons of gas driving there and back; tournament fees and expensive trips to compete in them. They remortgaged the house and Jeannie ran up credit card debt that she’s still paying off. “Mike says that we probably spent $10,000 a year [on judo],” Jeannie says. “I would say…” She pauses.  “Forty.”

To add to the stress, Kayla had become a difficult 13-year-old. Mouthy and moody, she was especially volatile when the subject was judo. Any threat—Clean your room or you’ll stay home from practice—would bring an explosion of tears. “I thought it was teenage angst,” Jeannie says.

Jeannie and Mike had also become increasingly critical of Daniel Doyle, her coach. The couple are nurses (both work with dialysis patients at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown), and they became concerned when Doyle demanded that their growing girl drop pounds to fight at a lower weight class. Doyle pressured Jeannie about home schooling Kayla so that she’d be able to travel more. He criticized Mike—who’d been part of Kayla’s life since she was an infant—about his step-parenting techniques. But most of all, “I didn’t like the way [Doyle] talked to her,” says Jeannie. “He made her cry.”  

Even so, Doyle had become a fixture in their lives. He went on family vacations because all their vacations centered on judo. When the kids were young, he babysat Kayla, Aura, and Jake, and as they got older they had overnights at his house. And Kayla continued to excel under his coaching, traveling with him to competitions all over the world. “Mike was fed up [but] I was in the zone,” says Jeannie. “I kept thinking, ‘She’s going to the next Olympics.’”

The word judo is often defined as “the gentle way.” That’s because fighters apply force indirectly, using another person’s strength against him. In the spring of 2007, Jeannie learned how badly that ethos had been warped for her daughter.

She accompanied Kayla to a championship tournament in Florida; the then-16-year-old had been with Doyle at a competition in Puerto Rico the week before but now she didn’t want him around. In Florida, Kayla was a mess—sobbing, confused, and unwilling to talk about what was wrong. After one match she collapsed into tears and Jeannie had to carry her off the mat. Jeannie pressed to find out what was going on. Finally, Kayla told her mother that Doyle had had sex with her—in fact, that he had been molesting her for years.

Sickened and furious, Jeannie flew home from Florida, greeted Mike with a PG-rated version of the story, then drove to Doyle’s house with a baseball bat in hand, smashed his car windows, and went to the police. Within a month she was driving Kayla to the East Coast and turning her over to new coaches, a new dojo, and—she hoped—a safer life.  
 
If you have a mental image of what a non-Japanese sensei should look like, it’s probably Frank Herzog. With a shaved head and trim goatee, ramrod-straight in his crisp white gi and lean as a lynx, the 64-year-old fairly radiates the principles most people associate with the sport—respect, duty, discipline. “I have two rules,” he says. “Number One: Sensei is always right. Number Two: If you think sensei is wrong, see Number One.

“I’m old-school,” he adds, rather unnecessarily.

His dojo, Budo Kai, is somewhat less old-school, being located in a disused Hamilton strip mall inside what might have been a discount store at one time. Inside, 20 or so students have gathered on thick mats to practice. The youngest student here tonight is 5; the eldest, old enough to be the little kid’s grandpa.

Kayla started in judo under Frank—not here, but at another location—and he remembers having a hard time finding partners for her. Back then, he says, “there was only one other person even close to her size and he was 15 pounds heavier and two years older.” With few girls at the dojo, she trained with the boys—boys who, saddled with a girl partner, amped up their efforts. “But you couldn’t discourage her,” Herzog recalls. When he relocated and the Yazells moved on to the Doyles’s dojo, Herzog lost track of her until she began showing up at meets. It was evident she was hooked. Which is, says sensei Herzog, as it should be. “Judo is fundamentally an art. Life is arranged around it. It should be the biggest thing in your life.”

The mess with Daniel Doyle is deeply disturbing to him. For one thing, he says he was the one who directed the Yazells to the Doyles. And he’s bothered by what it has done to the sport. “This has crushed judo in our area,” he says.

Shortly after Jeannie Yazell returned from Florida, law enforcement got involved in the all-consuming world of judo. After her rampage at the coach’s house, Jeannie swiftly turned to the police—so swiftly, in fact, that by the time Doyle called them to report that “someone” had vandalized his car, the cops already knew: Jeannie had told them herself. “Jeannie did what every mother should do,” says Laura Clemmens, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office who ultimately handled the case. “She immediately went to the police. And she got a restraining order.”

Doyle lived in Greene County; law enforcement there took their evidence to an FBI agent working in the region on child exploitation cases. From the information they’d gleaned, Doyle’s acts with Kayla had occurred locally and in multiple U.S. locations over the years, creating a tangle of challenges for prosecution. But they’d also occurred out of the country, when the two were traveling to international events. As a federal case, Clemmens says, it could be worked in a fairly straightforward manner by proving that he had traveled to a foreign country to engage in illicit sex with a minor. Such a case would have, Clemmens notes, “much stricter penalties.”
When Kayla met with investigators, she was still conflicted about turning Doyle in. “Part of her felt like she was being disloyal,” says Clemmens. “As time went on, she became outraged at what he’d done to her.” He was a grown man—15 years her senior—who’d preyed on her by taking advantage of the relationship between a coach and a child athlete. “Once she [understood that], she was incredible,” says Clemmens. “She had her head on her shoulders all the time.”   

Kayla opened the book on what had happened with Doyle. She made a list of all the things that went on. Hotel receipts and plane tickets from years of travel to far-off judo events confirmed her  claims.

The federal case focused on a series of incidents that took place beginning when Kayla was 13. Doyle was arrested and indicted on nine counts pertaining to sexual activities during foreign trips to locations that ranged from Russia to Venezuela. Ultimately he pled guilty to one count of illicit sexual conduct with a minor in a foreign place. As part of his plea agreement—before he was taken off to serve a 10-year sentence—he was forced to acknowledge and surrender a videotape he’d made of the two together.

In a sense, says Clemmens, “he seduced the whole family.” Except for breaking his windows, “Jeannie was amazingly restrained.”

Someone who was not seduced by Doyle is 29-year-old Aaron Handy, a Fairfield native who went to train at Renshuden Academy in 2003. Kayla was just a kid then. “A rising star, I guess; a standout,” he says. “I never really watched her fight that much.” But he was puzzled by the way Doyle treated the prized pupil. “Daniel talked to her like she was his dog,” he recalls. “‘Sit!’ and ‘Stay!’” It looked abusive and controlling to him, but when he mentioned it to other adults at the dojo, they just shrugged it off as normal sensei-student behavior. “I knew something was weird,” Handy says.

As the years went on, the two became friends. And in 2007, it was to Handy that Kayla finally revealed what was going on with Doyle. He insisted that she had to tell her mother—and the police. In the chaos that followed, he helped Jeannie move Kayla to Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Massachusetts, a highly regarded Boston-area studio run by former Olympian Jimmy Pedro and his father, Big Jim.

Handy had trained in Edinburgh, Scotland, one summer, and while he was there the Scots told him that when he went back to the States he had to train with the Pedros. He’d given it some thought, but now it was Kayla who had to go there; her mother wanted her far from Doyle.

When I spoke with the Pedros separately, by telephone, I asked each of them the same question: Was it a hard decision to take on Kayla as a student, knowing that she was in crisis mode?

“Not really,” said Big Jim. “We accept anybody that wants to come to train here. Even if they’re an idiot, usually they won’t act that way here.” Then he dropped the bluster. “You hear about all that stuff,” he said, gently referencing the molestation. “But you really don’t comprehend…you don’t know what they’re going through.”

Like his dad, Jimmy said it wasn’t a difficult decision to take her on. “It just seemed [like] somebody needs to look after this girl,” he said.

The Pedros got her into therapy immediately, enrolled her in high school, gave her a room in a house full of older athletes training for the ’08 Olympics, and gave her a part-time job. With the Yazell family resources stretched thin, Jimmy beat the bushes to find the money to keep her in training. He’d been supported throughout his own fighting career by the New York Athletic Club. “I convinced them she was going to be a future superstar, so they started out by paying her way to the national championships,” he says. As she established herself, she qualified for more support. Now she gets monthly stipends from the US Olympic Committee, USA Judo, and the New York Athletic Club, as well as whatever prize money she scores at tournaments. “She’s earning a living from judo at this point,” he says.

Kayla is earning it because she is one of the best. She began serious strength training when she came to work with the Pedros; today, Jimmy says, “she’s unquestionably the strongest woman in her division.” They saw her struggling to keep her weight down, crashing with low blood sugar. So they wanted her to move up two weight classes, to 78 kilograms—172 pounds. “She was devastated,” Jimmy says—afraid she couldn’t win against women that size, and dreading the gain. “There’s not too many females who want to weigh 172 pounds by choice.”

But Kayla did it. Look at a picture of her now in spandex or a bathing suit: She’s all muscle. And it suits her style—aggressive and powerful. She’s adept at big, sweeping throws like the harai goshi—dramatic and exciting to watch. Big Jim calls it “classic” judo. In layman’s terms, she fights like a man.

In London, she’ll be fighting women like Akari Ogata, a superb technician from Japan, and Brazil’s Mayra Aguiar, ranked No. 1 on International Judo Federation’s list. Kayla’s No. 2, but she has defeated Aguiar before. “When all the chips are down,” says Jimmy, “Kayla’s been able to win the big one.”

Random drug tests are, in fact, very random. The first time I call Kayla for a prearranged telephone interview, she apologizes profusely because she’s in the middle of one. When we reconnect, she explains that sports officials test her at least twice a month. They track her down wherever she is—at home, the gym, at lunch. “They just pop up,” she explains. “Usually you can’t leave where you are until you complete the test.”  

Her day started at 4:30 a.m., when she got up for her strength training session. She lifts five days a week, runs three times a week, and does judo twice a day, six days a week. On top of all this, “I’ve been fighting a sinus infection, so I try to nap every day,” she says. A drug test, “throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the system.”

But it goes with the territory. So, it seems, does constant travel. A few days after we talk, she’ll be heading to Moscow to train with some women (a “tune-up,” she calls it), then a grand slam tournament in Rio (which she ended up winning), then a small event in the Czech Republic (another victory). She’ll have three weeks back in Boston before heading to London with the five-member U.S. team.
The team will be coached by Jimmy Pedro, assisted by Big Jim—the men she’s been working with for five years; the men who figured out how to restore the life that was taken from her by Doyle’s perversion of the bow-to-your-sensei tradition. “It amazes me,” she says. “I’ve trusted them the way that I trusted Daniel. And my mother trusted them. Moving here when I was 16? That could have turned out really, really poorly. It’s because of what great people they are that it didn’t.”

There have been other saving graces. Aaron Handy came to train with the Pedros, too, keeping an eye on her, shielding her from the legal storm brewing in Ohio with Doyle, and steering her through grim days in her first year in Boston when she was close to suicidal. “He was an amazing friend,” she says. Now he’s her fiancé. “I’m a lucky girl,” she says.   

The unlucky part of her life came bubbling back up last year when the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal broke. She was furious when she heard the allegations that the assistant coach had molested boys; furious when the firing of Joe Paterno evoked more concern than the stories of abuse. “There was very little sympathy for the victims,” she recalls. “I was enraged by that.
“I remember what it was like to be 16 and to have people talking about me on a judo board—people who knew nothing about me. I wanted kids—boys, girls, victims—to know that while this was the most awful time in their lives, it will pass. And one day you’ll realize that it doesn’t define you anymore.”

Ironically, because she is talking openly about her past, being molested is a defining moment in stories like this one. But in London, scoring an ippon—a big, decisive, match-ending throw—would, no doubt, change the conversation.

“I’ve only had two goals in my life,” she says. “One was to win the World Championship, the other to be an Olympic champion.” In 2010 she won the world title and found some inner peace. “The past four years,” she says, “have been all about one day: August 2.”

She’s glad for the opportunity she’s been given but regrets that it meant finishing her childhood by living apart from her family—missing Jake’s birthdays and Aura’s high school adventures, missing camping and holidays and raucous board games. And she’s grateful that the harrowing trip that got her where she is today didn’t destroy her relationship with her mother.

For that, she credits Jeannie. For years, she says, “I blamed her for my unhappiness and I fought with her every single day. It must have been awful for her. But she never left my side; she never wavered.”

Before we end our phone conversation, I ask Kayla if—should she and Aaron Handy become parents—she would put her own children in competitive athletics. The championship-winning judoka—a woman who tosses a grown man over her shoulder with the speed of a Major League fastball; who can slam a 172-pound rival onto the mat like a wet beach towel; who grapples with Russians as a tune-up—seems caught off-guard by the question.

“I can’t imagine being a mother,” she says after a pause. “It’s the toughest job in the world.”

On an afternoon shortly after my conversation with Kayla, I’m back in the Yazell family room with Jeannie, who is folding laundry. She was texting with Kayla the night before, hoping that her daughter would call before the flight to Moscow. But she wasn’t able to, and now Jeannie wants to know how Kayla sounded to me. “I would rather talk than text,” she says, stacking T-shirts neatly. “There’s so much you can learn from the sound of her voice.”

Kayla’s 22 now, an adult. And adult children don’t like to burden their parents unnecessarily. Like last spring, when Kayla got a knee injury—an MCL tear—at an event in Japan. Jeannie heard about it from some kid at a judo tournament; it was on a fan site. If Jeannie had known, she would have been there, wanting to fix things.

But the fact is, being part of Team Kayla is largely a long distance endeavor. Kayla has made a life for herself in Massachusetts. Whatever happens after the Olympics—she has applied to be a firefighter like her fiancé and is  thinking about college, too—she won’t be returning to the fold to make up for the years she missed with her family. Those got co-opted by Daniel Doyle’s abuse. But they were also consumed by judo, and by the dream of standing with the athletes of the world as an American Olympian.

This is what Jeannie would tell parents who think their kid is Olympic material. “Don’t do it unless you’re in it for the long haul,” she says. “It takes a lot from everyone in the family. We’ve sacrificed a lot and we still do, because we miss her.” When I ask Jeannie if it has been worth it, she answers carefully: “It has been worth it to me.” It’s clear she knows she can’t speak for everyone.

She talks about the excitement of being in London, where she’ll have to figure out a way to make Jake’s birthday special, even though he’ll be celebrating in the shadow of his sister’s performance. And she jokes about the “big moment” when she sees her daughter on a Wheaties box. But on the day Team Kayla’s services are no longer required, she knows there will be a letdown. I ask her what she’s going to do after the Olympics. “Well, I would love to have an extended visit with my daughter,” she says.

Then, she adds, “I want to see her do whatever her heart desires.”  

Originally published in the August 2012 issue.
Illustration by Sandra Shap

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