He'd want 20 push-ups, she'd give him 30 and toss in a half-dozen handstand push-ups. I always thought I had to earn love, Kayla would say. So coachable, people would marvel. Such a pleaser, just like R.A., so eager to make her mother and coach happy. So determined not to let anyone down: the fertile soil that was so often mistaken for the perfect garden.
She'd freeze when her coach sent his hands under her clothing. Freeze ... and exit her body, burrow into some far-removed memory, travel further and further away until it all became a nightmare occurring to somebody else. She couldn't fathom what would happen to her or to the golden journey, the one for which her mom and stepdad were sacrificing so much, if she uttered a word. Yes, here was the strange twist that no one grasped at the time: The athletes with the biggest futures could be the easiest prey, blackmailed by their own dreams.
At 13 she won the triple crown, all three junior national tournaments, and began climbing age and weight divisions to take apart grown women. She was a relentless attacker, a hellcat on the mat. Trailing in the last seconds of the final at the junior Pan Ams, she scored a dramatic ippon, the judo equivalent of throwing a knockout punch just before the final bell. She was only a seventh-grader, but she had to start competing abroad to become an Olympian, Daniel persuaded her mom. Estonia? Venezuela? Russia? The Yazells simply couldn't afford it; the dream was costing 20, 30, 40 grand a year. Oh, yes, they could; their kid had a gift. Jeannie maxed out the family credit cards, took out a second mortgage, bought the plane tickets, paid for the overseas hotels for her daughter and coach.
No more team around. No more witnesses. Open season.
Sweet: That's the word everyone used to describe R.A. as a little boy. Always in your lap, a little fountain of questions and affection. But he just wanted to watch cartoons that summer evening when his mother ushered him into the condo of one of her friends, whose daughter would be his babysitter. He hadn't a clue what the 13-year-old girl had in mind when she took his hand and led him upstairs. He was eight years old.
His mom was still in the living room, having one for the road with her friend. She was an alcoholic, scraping to get by since her husband had packed up when R.A. was seven. The bartender fed quarters to the boy on weekend nights to keep him busy playing video games while she closed down her neighborhood bar in Nashville. He could hear his mother now through a bedroom vent, the clinking glasses and the laughter. Hear her as the babysitter, in a voice hard and dead, ordered him to take off his clothes and hers, as she shoved the stuffed animals off her four-poster bed, as the sweat of pure terror poured from his skin, as she pressed down on top of him. She ordered him into an adjacent room when she was done. He lay there feeling like wadded trash, trembling. Tell someone? He had no idea what had just happened, only that it had to be wicked, and now he must be wicked too.
It happened four or five more times that summer, as if he kept closing his eyes and lapsing into the same twisted dream, kept waking drenched in the same shame, clenched in the same fear of speaking it. And then....
What strange undertow had taken hold of him that summer of 1983? He was visiting relatives a few hours from Nashville that September. Coincidence, sick coincidence, that's all he could surmise years later. He was tossing a ball off the roof of a rundown garage not far from the relatives' house when a tall, wiry boy, perhaps 17 years old, approached. Maybe they could play roof toss together, R.A. was thinking, when suddenly he sensed the teenager glancing around to see if anyone was nearby, then the unbuckling of belt, the unzipping of pants. He turned to run, felt the boy seizing him, pinning him, overwhelming him. Then heard him rise and run away.
Let's stay here for a moment. We've got two children who've just taken a dagger. They don't yank out the dagger. Someone might see it. Besides, if they leave it there, maybe nobody can put another one in. And so scar tissue begins to form around it. They don't realize it, but the dagger soon becomes part of who they are. They end up protecting it, in a way, rather than pulling it out to look at it and learn about it. They end up dedicating their lives to hiding it—strategizing, lying, manipulating others to make sure their eyes go somewhere else: to the strong, smart, confident, golden children they both seem to be. Fabricating who I thought I should be, R.A. would say later, and trying to live up to that.
Kayla covered a bedroom wall with her goals and inspirational quotes. Kayla flirted with boys to throw everyone off the trail of her and her coach. Kayla became the dumb blonde when an opponent—a woman twice her age who'd picked up the scent as she watched the 15-year-old and her coach during tournaments—asked, "So ... what's up with you and Daniel?"