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It was vintage R.A.: Do something risky to make himself feel alive, do something athletic to divert all eyes from the damaged man dying on the mound, do something he'd toyed with before but that everyone who lived on the Missouri told him was lunacy: swim across it.
He stripped to his boxers and scaled a fence with the eyes of his disbelieving teammates glued on him, then plunged in and began windmilling through the turgid waters of North America's longest river. Not halfway across, he knew he was in trouble. The current had already swept him a quarter mile downriver, an undertow was sucking him under, his muscles were locking with exhaustion. Keep going—or turn back? He turned back. The undertow sucked him down again. Panic flushed through him. He wasn't going to make it. He began to weep underwater and pray to God to protect his family when he was gone.
He sank, hit bottom, pushed off and kept thrashing, one more stroke, one more stroke. He caught a blurry glimpse of a teammate, reliever Grant Balfour, who'd grasped the danger and followed him down the river, scrambled onto a thin platform protruding from the shore and stretched out on it, extending his hand and shouting to him. Somehow R.A. gasped his way there, flung out his hand, found Grant's and was hauled in. He collapsed on the shore and lay there, heaving. He'd finally reached it. The far limit of R.A. Dickey. The very end of himself.
He noticed something odd that evening, strolling across the outfield grass during batting practice. Joy surged through his body. The old smoke was gone from his head.
Nine young judokas saved Kayla Harrison. Nine young judokas, in a houseful of testosterone and estrogen and identity crises, with nicknames like Babaganoush and Boon and Ground Round and Handyman and Big Ron—Big Ron was a girl—who literally lifted Kayla out of bed in the morning, helped her with her schoolwork, poured her into her gi, mingled their sweat and blood with her tears on the mat, and even squeezed smiles from her when they gathered at night to mock the "reality" television shows that were popular in that era about 10 young people in a houseful of testosterone and estrogen and identity crises.
Nine judokas, known as Team Force, and two coaches urging Kayla to funnel her rage at what had happened, to focus it and vent it on the mat, to exhaust it. Jimmy Pedro, the most decorated U.S. judo fighter in history, the two-time bronze medalist who'd become the Olympic coach: the good cop. Big Jim, his dad, a black belt, former meatpacker and firefighter: the bad cop. The one screaming at her, "Just train and stop your goddam crying!" because, after all, "that's what got me through two divorces. Releases your problems. Gives your brain a rest." The one who would vow to her, when she froze up on the eve of tournaments because she knew that the whole judo world knew, "stick by me, Kid. If anyone there says anything to you, they'll think a flock of wild cats landed on 'em."
The bad cop finally got through to her when she won the U.S. Open in 2007 and felt absolutely nothing and told him she was quitting for good. He invited her to his house, this silver-haired man with the curt air of an old European farmer bent over his grapes in search of fungus, and he sat with her in his backyard watching the steam rise from a lake at dawn. "You know, kid," he said, "what happened, happened. It was a terrible thing, but some day you have to get over it. It doesn't have to define you. You have a chance to do something great with your life, but I can't want it for you. Terrible things happen to people every day, but they've got to get back up."
No magic happened. She wasn't healed. She needed to quit dropping out of therapy and stay with it long enough to dig deeper and see wider. She needed to keep going through the motions long enough to begin harvesting all the fruit that sports dangles alongside its thorns, the sense of purpose and belonging, the team dinners and encouragement and teasing and pranks. But the deep truth of Big Jim's words finally sank into her: Yes, sex abuse had occurred to her, but sex abuse wasn't her. And for crissakes, Kid, stop feeling guilty and put that coach in the slammer before he does it to someone else!
She wavered, but finally, on a winter day in 2008, she walked into a federal courtroom in Dayton to confront her former coach. The moment it became clear that she would testify, he had pleaded guilty and plea-bargained, so now her task was to make a statement at the hearing that would determine his prison sentence. She cried hysterically in the hallway outside the courtroom, called her new coach and listened as Jimmy told her to take deep breaths, approach this moment as if it were a judo match and look at no one except the judge. She entered the room, swallowed hard and tried to make strangers understand what sex abuse had done to her life. "What had once been my passion," she said, "became my prison."
The judge opted for the longest sentence permitted under the plea-bargain agreement, 10 years. When Daniel turned to Kayla as he was led from the courtroom in handcuffs and said, "I love you," she collapsed.