“He loved the sport, and I didn’t know anyone who didn’t love Jack,” Jimmy Pedro, one of his coaches, said in a telephone interview. “He was a kind soul, a good person.”
Hatton died at an athletes’ house affiliated with Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass. The center released a statement calling Hatton “a true role model for students at our dojo and judoka all over the country” and urged anyone struggling with depression or mental health issues to seek help or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
“We’re devastated over this because Jack was eight months away from making his first Olympic team,” said Pedro, who has worked with some of the most prominent Americans in the sport. “He was in position to go to the Games, a dream of his. He seemed happy, with no signs of depression. But one of the last searches on his phone was looking for mental health [assistance]. He was seeking help. We just had no idea.”
A New York City native and the son of a black belt in the sport, Hatton first tried judo when he was 4. In 2016, he joined the New York Athletic Club’s judo program, according to the club’s July magazine. Pedro said he had known Hatton since he “was a little boy” and that he joined Pedro’s program in 2015.
In announcing Hatton’s death Wednesday, USA Judo wrote on Facebook that “Jack made an indelible mark on all who had the pleasure of knowing him, and he will not be forgotten. We grieve with the entire USA Judo and international judo community during this tough time. USA Judo is in the process of providing grief counseling services for those in need and will share information on services for Jack as they become available.”
The judo community was stunned by Hatton’s death.
“Jack is one of the best USA Judoka and top athlete at the U81kg division,” world champion Sagi Muki said, via Judoinside.com. “I’m so sad to hear this and I hope he is in a better place. I had a tough fight with him. My heart is broken.”
Khasan Khalmurzaev, the gold medalist in the 81-kg event at the 2016 Summer Olympics, said he was “in shock” and that Hatton “had a great future” in the sport.
Tony Sangimino, who had worked with Hatton early in his career, recalled in an interview that Hatton had “an unreal magic about him. Everyone gravitated toward him. Everyone wanted more from Jack. It placed high demands on him emotionally.”
Sangimino said he is concerned about the pressure amateurs face as they balance real-world jobs with the demands of training to be elite, Olympic-caliber athletes, particularly in sports that don’t generate big revenue.
“It’s a wake-up call,” he said. “Plenty of athletes live in these conditions [facing financial pressure] across the country.”
But with a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for next summer’s Tokyo Games a strong possibility, the timing of Hatton’s death was all the more stunning and baffling to those who knew him.
“For the first time in his life, he was financially stable, getting a monthly stipend from U.S. Judo and the New York Athletic Club and his expenses were covered by the New York Athletic Club, one of his sponsors,” said Pedro, who had known Hatton since he was 8. “For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t struggling. He was financially stable. We’re just devastated.”
Pedro said there were no indications about what was bothering Hatton, adding that he had spoken to Hatton’s father about possibly donating his brain for further study to Boston University’s CTE Center.
“He suffered a few concussions when he was 21 or 22 that are documented," Pedro said, "but he was treated and went through concussion protocol.”
In an essay on a GoFundMe account created for Hatton’s family, Sangimino wrote that American athletics “can do better.”
“If this isn’t a wake up call to the quality of life that many of our athletes are living under, I don’t know what is,” he wrote. “You can post all the 1-800 Numbers you like, but I hope you don’t think you’re making a difference. This kid could have called anyone in the world for help, but he didn’t want it, because he didn’t think he deserved it. There wasn’t anything wrong with Jack Hatton, he just couldn’t endure anymore.”
Sangimino in the essay described an athlete “who committed his life to judo, and had to crawl through a battlefield to get there,”
“A series of life altering decisions brought Jack to success in his field,” he wrote. “He had filled a vacuum left by his senior training partner and was being prepped to ultimately replace him. This was part of a plan bigger than him, and he was reminded of this repeatedly. The thing is, sports aren’t a science — they’re gambling. You have control over some odds, but when you’re 100 percent committed, you have to take some punches on the chin. Jack went through the natural ebbs and flows of competition results. Funded, supported, and dropped by a broken system that allowed him to commit himself to a shared objective. Even through this, he endures, reaching new heights and proving himself greater.
“I need to remind you that in situations like this, we must avoid blame. Yet it’s just as important in these moments that we honor the sanctity of truth and [bear] that responsibility willingly. Jack committed his life to Judo, and had to crawl through a battlefield to get there. He wasn’t seen as a person, he was seen as a sport statistic. He was seen as a W or an L on a screen — as a ratio of wins to losses, a product of the prize investment of his country’s program. The stability of his clubs, his country, and ultimately himself lay in the balance. Even if he accomplished his goals, it would be more of the same. Asking for what he needs and having it thrown in his face, over and over again. His chosen life? A perpetual burden.”