Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison, a victim of sexual abuse by her judo coach, applauded the 150 victims of a former sports doctor for their powerful statements that led to former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar’s 40- to 175-year sentence on Wednesday.
“I’m really proud and impressed by the survivors,” Harrison told this news outlet during a phone interview Thursday from her home in Boston.
“They are like an army of survivors. I have said this a million times, but sexual abuse is awful, and I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. This type of abuse affects you for the rest of your life. Those girls will live with scars forever. No amount of jail time can fix that.”
Harrison, 27, a Middletown native, was sexually abused by Daniel Doyle, her longtime Centerville judo instructor and the supposed family friend, from the time she was 13 to 16. Doyle was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2007. He recently was released, and Harrison said she has had no contact with him.
“In my mind back then I still felt it was my fault,” Harrison said during a 2012 interview. “I felt I had done something wrong, and if he was going to jail, I should be in trouble, too. That it took two to tango. I thought it had been a real relationship — that he loved me and I loved him. I thought I was going to marry him.”
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She has survived because of the “strong, positive role models” around her. She also had Olympic gold medal goals that she accomplished at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. In 2012, she became the first American to win gold in judo.
A month after Kayla’s mother, Jeannie Yazell, found out about the long, abusive relationship, she overruled other family members and relocated her daughter to Massachusetts so she could continue with her sport under the tutelage of Jimmy Pedro, the fabled U.S. judo Olympian, and his well-respected father, Big Jim Pedro.
Harrison has written a book entitled, “Fighting Back,” which will be released this spring. She has traveled the world talking about sexual abuse and its signs.
“It doesn’t define me,” she said of her past. “I’m a victim, but also a survivor. I’m only a victim if I allow myself. We are survivors, and we must use that as fuel for the future.”
By telling her story, Harrison hopes to “make an impact on the world.” After speaking engagements, women have told her they were sexually assaulted years before, and one young woman handed her a note that read: “I was raped a month ago.”
Harrison said she’s friends with some of the U.S. gymnasts, those Nassar sexually assaulted. When news came out about Nassar and the extent of the assaults, Harrison said she was “shocked as the rest of the world. We need to educate our society so that people realize you cannot stay silent. If you do, you are just as bad, and that is unforgivable.”
The sentencing of Nassar and the national media attention it attracted, was “a very, very big step for our society,” Harrison said. “This is a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s unspeakable what happened.”
When Judge Rosemarie Aquilina handed down the sentence in Lansing, Mich., this week, she said to Nassar: “I just signed your death warrant.” Harrison said she was “proud” of the judge and her sentence.
When asked about advice for young athletes and their parents, Harrison said athletes should never be left alone for long periods with their coaches. Parents should know their kids’ coaches and their backgrounds, she said.
“You wouldn’t give keys to your car to a stranger,” she said. “Why would you ever give your kids to a stranger just because you want the next Michael Jordan, the next Gabby Douglas, the next Tiger Woods? It doesn’t make sense. Keep the dialogue open. Make sure your children can talk to you about everything.”
Harrison said she’s training to make her MMA debut, possibly this summer, though a date has not been set.