Mr. Norris, possessing a black belt in judo – among your many martial art masteries as six-time world champion – have you had a chance to see the victory and hear the tragedy-to-triumph story of Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison? Care to reflect on her victory and health lessons? – Ted R. in Calgary, Alberta
Yes, on Aug. 2, I, too, was deeply touched by the Olympic victory and story of 22-year-old Kayla Harrison, who won America’s first gold medal in judo at the Olympic Games in London. Kayla had four fights in five hours, and she won the first three bouts by ippon, the judo equivalent of boxing’s knockout.
Her epic tale of conquest, however, is that she achieved her Olympic dreams after suffering years of sexual abuse at the hands of her childhood coach, a trusted family friend 16 years her senior, who molested her when she was 13 till she was 16 – and maybe earlier.
Time magazine summarized the outcome: “Harrison’s mother eventually found out about the abuse, through one of her daughter’s friends, and reported [Daniel] Doyle to the police. In November 2007, Doyle plead guilty to a count of ‘engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place.’ Some of the abuse took place while Doyle and Harrison traveled overseas for judo tournaments. He’s serving a 10-year federal prison sentence.”
Kayla’s journey to Olympic gold, as well as her triumph over tragedy, models a path that victims of any form of abuse or past entrapments can take to attain recovery, freedom and their dreams.
Here are a few of the lessons that her life and actions teach us:
1. Don’t let being a victim define or paralyze you any more than it already has; rather, use it as a catalyst to grow, overcome and fuel victory.
The U.K.’s Guardian retold how Kayla said everything in her life – the good, the bad and the ugly – was used to help her overcome and reach her goals: “Kind of just reflecting back on my life. Everything it’s taken to get here, and everything that I’ve gone through.”
Kayla reminded me of a critical fact in personal growth: Your past can be the fire for victory in your present; it doesn’t have to paralyze and enslave you. Triumph over trauma can be our greatest achievement because it helps us in myriad ways. In her own words, Kayla said her journey “is proof that you’re only a victim if you allow yourself to be. Nothing can stop you.”
Read, learn and grow. As PAVE Inc.’s website notes, “Education and awareness are essential to both prevention and healing.”
2. Surround yourself with people who will push – and sometimes even pull – you toward health, wholeness and your goals.
Kayla and her mother wisely knew that she alone couldn’t overcome her assailant’s effects or achieve her athletic dreams, so they searched far and wide for reputable, safe and healthy coaches. They discovered them in the two-time Olympic medal winner Jimmy Pedro Jr. and his father, who together got Kayla into therapy, rebuilt her confidence and trained her to be a judo champion.
Just as the instructors in my KickStart Kids program serve as positive mentors and role models for their martial arts students, the Pedros served as catalysts for change for Kayla. So at 16, she moved in with the Pedros’ other 10 students, who all lived in the safety of the same apartment.
But if you think Kayla had an inherent Olympic mindset when she arrived, think again.
Pedro Jr. explained to Time just how low Kayla was when she arrived under their tutelage: “She was not in a good state of mind. She was somebody who had no self-esteem. She didn’t know, really, right from wrong. She was somebody who didn’t know if she wanted to go on with life or not.”
Pedro recounted how he once discovered Kayla on the roof of a two-story apartment, wondering whether she should jump: “It was just a very, very, very low point.”
Kayla even confessed just how low she was and how pivotal the help of the Pedros and her other teammates was during this critical time, when her past even robbed her of the joy of her sport: “I hated judo. I hated the Pedros. I didn’t want to be the strong girl. I didn’t want to be the golden girl. I didn’t want to be the one who overcame everything.”
But in time, the Pedros and Kayla’s fellow judo students encouraged her not to give up. She reflected: “That’s why I owe all of this to the Pedros, to my teammates. They’re the ones who got me out of bed in the morning and said, ‘We’re going to lift.’ They’re the ones who picked me off the mat when I was crying and wanted to quit. I’m forever grateful to them for that.”
I’m back to that old adage: You can’t soar with eagles if you run with turkeys. Those who are around you can define your success or your path to it. Your environment will shape you, for better or worse; you can count on it. So let your closest friends and colleagues be champions of your improvement.
As the magnet states on the refrigerator of Catherine McCall – who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, as well as a victim and overcomer of sexual abuse herself, and a passionate advocate and educator of victims of child abuse – “there are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.” (The quote is attributed to Elizabeth David.)
Next week, I will reflect on three more lessons from Kayla’s success, which we all can learn from to overcome the pains of the past.
For further assistance, I encourage you to go to PAVE’s website and to read some of the many free online articles McCall has written for Psychology Today. She is also the author of the life-changing and inspirational book “When the Piano Stops: A Memoir of Healing From Sexual Abuse.”
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.