Kayla Harrison: first-ever gold for US judo forged from adversity
Kayla Harrison was sexually abused by her coach as a teenager, but finding support and love in a new setting helped turn around her life and set her on a path to Olympic judo gold Thursday.
The first American gold medal in judo was forged between Today’s Transmission and Stewy’s Custom Cycles.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Harrison had been sexually abused by her coach for the last three years. She was, she says, “an emotional car wreck” with thoughts of suicide, so her mother did what she thought was best: put her in the care of the renowned gym, run by an Olympic medalist, to start building a new life.
In the end, there could not have been a better place.
It has brought her to this moment – gold in the judo half heavyweight class (172 pounds) – and, far more than that, a life reconstructed.
Like many Olympians, Harrison found that what she needed most was a sporting family. The task of working to be the best in the world can be a solitary business, with athletes training from morning until night, locked within the universe of their own ambitions.
Sometimes, that is just too much to take. When American heptathlete Hyleas Fountain went from training on her own to training with a group of peers, it changed everything. “It makes me want to go to practice everyday. It makes me want to work harder,” she said at a media summit in May.
For Harrison, it meant something even more profound. It meant a training partner to roust her out of bed every morning at 4:30 to make her go to training – at time when she only wanted to give up. It meant she had an Olympic medalist to take her under her wing like a little sister at a time when she needed one.
And more than anything, it meant two coaches at Pedro’s Judo Center who rekindled her love for the sport and refused to allow her past to define what she was to become.
Thursday, Harrison became an Olympic champion, and what had come before only served to make that achievement more poignant.
“This is not just one day,” she said after defeating Britain’s surprise finalist, Gemma Gibbons, in front of Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “My teammates, coaches, and family have sacrificed so much to make my dream come true, and today it has.”
Taking a beating
On a summer day before Harrison left for London, Harrison’s supporting cast is assembled in Pedro’s Judo Center. Before the training session, she says to this reporter, “are you going to stick around and watch them beat me up?”
And that is precisely what they do.
No fewer than a half dozen male judokas line up opposite her on the mat, some sporting copious amounts of chest hair beneath their open judogi robe, some laughing at the others’ chest hair. It feels like an outtake from “Good Will Hunting” in pajamas.