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But then, so few in that era understood the warning signs. So few peered carefully enough into the lives of elite young athletes with extraordinary thresholds for work and pain. They were the warriors whom coaches lauded and everyone admired. People have no idea how toxic an Olympic dream can be, the girl would say a few years later, when she grew old enough to understand. I'd use judo as my escape from what was happening to me ... and to punish myself. I'd push myself to the brink of danger.
Kayla's mother, Jeannie Yazell, was once a middle-distance and cross-country runner. She suffered howling pain in her feet for years and kept running—running and howling all the way to the Ohio state meet four straight years and then to a track scholarship at Ohio State. Not long before college a surgeon opened her feet and saw nearly 20 stress fractures, many of the bones pounded into fusion. At 18 she was a retired runner at a community college, in casts and in tears. In an eye blink she was a hospice nurse with a brown belt in judo, teaching a giggling tyke with bouncing blonde ringlets how to land safely on her squeaking bed when she was thrown, never dreaming what was about to throw her.
Lapdog, R.A.'s high school baseball coach called him. That's how close R.A. kept to the man, niggling at him with questions about the nuances of the game. Lapdog, the last boy on the ball field as darkness fell in spring. The last silhouette on the gridiron in autumn, hurling footballs at the goalpost after everyone at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville had gone home. The last shadow on the outdoor basketball court in winter, pelted by midnight snow, shooting game-winning jump shots until he couldn't raise his arms. Couldn't raise his hand to tell someone, anyone, why.
Sports, he would say years later, when he had learned to make words dance like his pitches, was a way to punish yourself and feel great about yourself at the same time, an amazing libation that kept calling for more. It was an escape—but a counterfeit escape. And so it was an obstacle to health.
Consciousness, to be candid, was at a lower tide then. Paradox was still too tricky a terrain for the human brain to navigate: It never occurred to many adults that one extreme—excessive repetition of an activity that increased one's control and strength—is often used to mask its opposite, dangerous vulnerability.
R.A., of course, had tried other ways to counteract the poison inside him. He'd gone numb, not caring about himself to the point of peeing in his green chinos in sixth grade rather than walk downstairs to the bathroom, then jamming a wad of paper towel into his crotch to soak up the evidence. He'd tried flailing the toxin out, sending it straight into the jaws of stunned schoolmates in seventh grade. But nobody slapped you on the back for wetting your pants or cheered for your coldcocking a classmate. Sports, because it was the universal obsession then, was hands down the infected youth's wiliest strategy: It offered worthiness in heaps that seemed almost vast enough to fill a child's abyss.
Kayla was nine when the grooming began. She craved attention, and her new judo coach began giving her piggyback rides at family picnics and barbecues, making her feel that she, among all his young judokas, was the chosen one. Then he began reaching beneath the blanket on the couch and holding her hand during team sleepovers, shushing her to make sure the others, in their sleeping bags, didn't stir. Then pretending he had fallen asleep in front of the TV, waiting till her mother and stepfather had gone to bed, slipping beside her on the love seat to massage her back and murmur, "Don't tell anyone ... it's a secret...." He was large and loud, striking fear in her as well as pride, and she couldn't figure out a way to turn down the same adult that she needed to please.
Yes, I said sleepovers. No, they didn't set off sirens back then. Coaches were the tribal elders of that era, the leaders that the culture relied on to cultivate their children's character and to conduct their rites of passage. Coaches—just like priests—were in charge of the ladder that people thought had to be ascended, but few made the connection, understood the risks that were inherent when people needed such heights and handed over such power. When the boom economy of the 1990s arrived and traveling to compete in sports became commonplace for children as young as 10, the opportunities for coaches to leverage that power only grew.
We wouldn't hand the keys to our car to someone we didn't know well, but we'll do that with our kids just because he's a coach. That's what Jimmy Pedro, the U.S. Olympic judo coach, noticed back then.
The thing is, Kayla's mom thought she knew Daniel Doyle, the sensei at Renshuden Club, not far from their home in Middletown, Ohio. He was charismatic, cracked up everyone with his goofy jokes and voices, and coached alongside his pop, a big-bellied native of Ireland with a cane and a lovely leftover lilt. Daniel groomed Mom in a way too. He rode in the Yazells' car to competitions in distant cities. He vacationed with the family because judo tournaments doubled as holidays. He babysat Jeannie's three children—the other two born after she remarried when Kayla was two—sometimes gave Kayla a lift to practice and even built a retaining wall and a pool in the family's backyard. Sure, it bothered Jeannie when he snapped at practice, kicked Kayla in the back of the legs and spoke to her as if she were a dog ... but he did that to other kids, and besides, wasn't that what coaches did? It unnerved Jeannie when he began carping at Kayla about her diet, her clothing, her hair, her friends, but by now people were talking about her as a future Olympian, and maybe those two things entwined—his obsessiveness and her perfectionism—were the high wire to the podium that had to be walked.