He thought he was done. He had said it all along. Sydney, and retire. He had a wife, a family. Logically, a job would come next. He wanted to buy a house, to move out of the five-room apartment he and his wife shared with their three kids, nestled above her parents' place, the house in which she grew up.
"Mentally, I had totally stopped," he said, "and I was happy with my life."
Or so he thought. Jimmy Pedro is not Michael Jordan. He is not Larry Holmes or Martina Navratilova or some other cover-of-Sports Illustrated star who can't live outside the spotlight for more than a few years, and therefore must make some attempt at a return to glory. For Pedro, glory is relative, shared in small circles. He doesn't swim or run track or toil at any of the mainstream activities that will make marketing machines of other previously obscure athletes this summer at the Olympic Games in Athens. He is a judoka, one who performs, or is expert in, judo.
Somehow, the obscurity of his comeback makes it more compelling. The ulterior motives -- fame, fortune and the like -- are stripped aside. When he retired, there was little, if any, fanfare. When he returned, there was even less. It was just a call, in the winter of 2002, placed from his cell phone in Salt Lake City during the Winter Olympics. On the other end, his wife, Marie, could hear the celebration in the background. American Derek Parra had just won a gold medal in speed skating. The sport was irrelevant; it could have been biathlon, bobsled, whatever. The accomplishment, though, meant everything. Skating and judo? The connection, to Pedro, was obvious.
He was 31, and done. Except right there, he came back.
"I'm getting the fever," he yelled to Marie over the phone from the stands, and she knew precisely what he meant. "What do you think, when I get back, we talk about going for it one more time?"
If there was an actual conversation upon his return home to Lawrence, Mass., neither can really recall it. The move was made. "I looked at the other athletes, how they performed so well," he said, "and I felt it was meant to be me."
Marie Pedro understood the ramifications, the time away and the financial uncertainty and the anxiety attacks for their oldest child, daughter Casey, who had no interest in watching Daddy drop her off at school, and then being forced to wonder if he would be back that afternoon -- or not for three weeks. Marie had been there, as the supportive girlfriend, for Barcelona in 1992. She had been there four years later, as wife and new mother, to watch him win bronze in Atlanta. And she had kept tabs from afar in 2000 -- tending to, now, three children, waiting for what they had hoped would be a celebratory phone call from Sydney.
"I know the sacrifice," Marie Pedro said. "I knew what it meant. But you don't want to get in the way of dreams that big."
Today, Jimmy Pedro takes the next step toward that dream at the U.S. Judo Trials in San Jose. He is, by far, the favorite in the 73-kilogram weight class, despite the fact that he took two years off. He should, by all accounts, win today's event and get that one last shot at gold -- which would be a first for an American judoka -- in August.
But he knows something about being the favorite in this sport, too.
"I was the best in the world in '99, and probably the best athlete that competed on the mat in 2000 [in Sydney]," he said. "But I didn't win gold. I finished fifth."
Nearly four years later, he repeats those words -- I didn't win gold, I finished fifth -- in a bit of a monotone, as if still trying to convince himself it happened that way, maybe even as punishment. He was the world champion in 1999, the can't-miss kid.
"He's one of our most successful players -- ever," said Ron Tripp, president of U.S. Judo.
Judo, though, is quirky. The entire competition is held in a single day. Work for four years, be the best in the world, go to the Olympics, come out flat, have a penalty called on you with 10 seconds left in your first match, lose, struggle to work back through the draw, lose again, go home. That was Pedro in 2000. The United States has still never won a gold medal at the Olympics.
"He was devastated," said his father, Jim Pedro Sr., Jimmy's coach since he was 5.
Marie Pedro had never before checked the results of a meet on the Internet, but she did that morning. It was her birthday, her husband was half a world away, he had promised her a gold medal as a present, and she wanted to know. Winning gold would mean moving out of her parents' house in her blue-collar home town of Lawrence. Companies large and small had already called and faxed their endorsement offers, their promises of bonuses. Not enough to set the Pedros up for life, but enough to make a difference. Win gold, they said, and we'll take care of you. Win gold, they said, and your life will change.
She logged onto the computer around 6 a.m. The results trickled in. A Belarussian, Anatoly Laryukov, shared the bronze with Vsevolods Zelonijs of Latvia. Tiago Camilo of Brazil took the silver. And . . . no. Giuseppe Maddaloni? Of Italy? Who's he? He didn't win gold. Did he?
"This must be wrong," Marie thought. "They must have gotten the results mixed up."
Then the phone started ringing, calls of condolences. Then she turned on the TV. Her husband, such a rock for so long, was choking back tears. Right there, on national TV, he apologized to his wife.
"I had made a promise," Jimmy Pedro said, "and obviously, I couldn't deliver on it."
"And all of a sudden," Marie Pedro said, "life takes a sharp right-hand turn."
That, right there, might be the core of the Olympics for the athletes about whom no one knows. For athletes in judo or fencing or kayaking, this is it, their chance. So it made sense, after the disappointment of 2000, that those Olympic feelings would resurface in Pedro. Forget that Marie Pedro had left her job as a teacher, and Jimmy needed to work, something of which he was capable. He was all-Ivy League wrestler at Brown, where he had earned a 3.7 grade point average in business economics. As his college wrestling coach, Dave Amato, said, "If he didn't do judo, he could be making a bundle as a trader by now."
Upon returning from Sydney, Pedro took a job at Monster.com, the Internet job-hunting site, as a sports marketer. Monster is an Olympic sponsor, but the connection seemed tangential at best. He worked 8:30 to 5:30, five days a week. No longer an Olympian. A working stiff.
But it was Monster that sent him to Salt Lake for business, the trip that rekindled his feelings. It is Monster, now, that keeps him on the payroll, even as he travels to international meets, even if he is only able to call or check e-mail occasionally when he's away, even if he can only stop by at the office in Maynard, Mass., three or four days a week when he's home. They are paying his salary, his benefits. They are bankrolling his full-time dream even as he works part-time.
And lest this comeback sound like another Rickey Henderson or Gordie Howe sideshow, listen up. Pedro has asked himself -- particularly when Casey or one of the boys, Anthony or Ricky, is protesting yet another departure for yet another meet -- "Am I selfish?" He has concluded he is not.
"A lot of athletes in the past have made comebacks in my sport," Pedro said. "They're competing, but they're not a threat. But I came back, and I beat the highest caliber of player there is. I went to Europe in February, and was in the finals of both events I competed at. It showed me: You have a chance, and this isn't just an athlete going through the motions who can't let go. It's someone who actually has a legitimate shot and is physically ready to do it."
Mentally, too, things are different.
"He's older," said Jim Pedro Sr. "You're not as fast as you were, but you have that knowledge that carries you in a lot of matches. Two years off is a lot of time. People blow by you in that time. He's still a work in progress. And even with all that, at the Olympics, you have to get the breaks."
So he is giving himself one more chance to get the breaks. Should he win the trials, he will travel to Athens with his father. Marie and the children will watch from afar, though Marie will never again check for the results on the Internet.
Whatever happens, Pedro said he will return home at peace -- with himself, with his sport, with his life. Whatever happens, he won't have to sit and tell those kids in, say, 2014, that he could have made the Olympics a fourth time, but he decided not to try.
"I, as a person, want to do this for myself," he said. "I want to give myself a last shot so that I don't have any regrets 10 years from now, thinking, 'You know what? You probably should've tried. You should've went for it, and now it's too late.' I want to do it one last time."