LONDON • As she stands on the precipice of the unprecedented — seeking the first Olympic gold medal in judo by any U.S. athlete — Kayla Harrison oozes confidence.
She is the 2010 world champion in the 172-pound division, and what she calls "Olympic glory" may await her next Thursday. She's already amid a great surge in her life: living in the beach town of Wakefield, Mass., and recently engaged to a firefighter whose career path she'd like to follow.
"Who wouldn't want to save a life?" she said at the recent U.S. Olympic Media Summit in Dallas. "It's something that I would really, really love to do."
First, though, her own life needed rescue.
Virtually throughout the interview, Harrison, 22, was chillingly candid about the impact on her life of years of sexual abuse by a former coach who was 16 years older than she was.
With the specter of Penn State and Jerry Sandusky looming large over the sporting landscape, Harrison hopes her story helps victims further shed their stigma and puts sports' "governing bodies on high alert" to try to eradicate such attacks.
In her experience, which was brought to light in 2007 when she was 16, the trauma of the direct abuse and blaming of the victim are intertwined.
"There's been kind of a … taboo about being a victim," she said. "I mean, I remember going through it and reading on judo forums online what people were saying about me: 'Well, we don't know if she's telling the truth.' … 'How old was she, really?' … 'She knew better.'
"I remember being devastated. I couldn't look in the mirror. I had no self-esteem because of our society and the taboo that people put on being a victim."
Those paralleled the emotions she suffered during the abuse, which, at least for legal purposes, was determined to be from 2004-2007 when the ex-coach, Daniel Doyle, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
But Doyle — once a family friend who baby-sat Harrison and her siblings — had been her coach since she was 8 years old, when she began a sport she loved right away for being able to toss people around and fly through the air and go swimming in hotel pools when she was at competitions.
All the while, she now sees, Doyle was "grooming" her.
"At a very young age, I put a lot of pressure on myself to please people," she said. "My biggest fear was disappointing my parents or disappointing Daniel, my coach. My world revolved around him. He was my sun, you know? All I wanted to do was please him, and he unfortunately took advantage of that.
"During those years, I was an emotional wreck. I was severely depressed, suicidal, I hated my life … because I had this big secret. My whole life was a lie. I lied to my mother. I lied to my father. Everyone I talked to, I was lying to."
CUED BY DOYLE
"When I was young, it was just sort of like (he said), 'It's a secret: We have to keep this between us, (or) we'll get in trouble,'" she said. "And then, honestly, as I got older, I was pretty brainwashed. I knew that it was wrong, but I kind of always assumed that it would be accepted when I turned 18. …
"I thought I loved him. I did: I thought I loved him, and I thought he loved me."
It was on that emotion, in fact, that the abuse was revealed.
When Harrison learned Doyle was involved with a woman in 2007, she "couldn't take it any more" and told a friend, who told Harrison's mother, Jeannie Yazell.
"I was devastated and horrified," Yazell told USA Today last fall, adding, "There are days that I think, 'How could I not have known?'"
Once she did know, she immediately went to police. And she moved her daughter from Middleton, Ohio, to Massachusetts.
There, Harrison could get a fresh start while continuing to pursue her passion and prowess in judo with coach Jimmy Pedro, whom she had met when he coached her on a junior national team.
Despite her misplaced trust in Doyle, Harrison believed in Pedro, so much so that she entrusted him to help her prepare to testify at Doyle's sentencing hearing.
That proved to be another milestone in her escape from that life.
Another phase was winning the world championship in 2010.
"It was kind of like, 'You did it — despite everything, you did it,'" she said.
To win in London, she said, "would be amazing."
Not that she expects anything less.
"I know without a doubt there is nothing in my life that is going to be harder than going through … the process of pressing charges and being a victim of sexual abuse," she said. "There's nothing in this world that's going to be harder than that."
Nothing, she added, "can stop me."
Thanks largely to revealing the secrets and lies.
"I had a journal," she said. "I couldn't write about what was happening to me, but I would write about how I felt. And some days the journal just says, 'I hate my life, I hate my life, I hate my life.'
"That's kind of how I dealt with the pain. And also, unfortunately, I dealt with it by lashing out at my mom and lashing out at the people closest to me. ... It changed my relationships with a lot of people I was close to. And it made me (the kind of) person that I didn't want to be."
Looking back, she added, "I feel incredibly bad for that little girl. I can still see her — I can still see me — lying on my bed, crying my eyes out, and not knowing what to do. Not knowing how to escape.
"But at the same time I feel sad for her I feel happy for me, because I am at a great place in my life."
Now, she hopes, sharing her story also will save others.
She's had people approach her with regret etched on their faces, telling her they wish they'd come forward as she has.
"One of the biggest things that I've learned is that you're only a victim if you allow yourself to be," she said. "And although it feels like hell, and it feels as though it will never end, it will.
"But you have to have the courage, you have to stand up, and you have to be able to say, 'I don't want to be that person, I don't want to be this victim. That's not what's going to define me. That's not who I'm going to be.'"