LONDON — Standing on the medal podium with gold draped around her neck, Kayla Harrison laughed and cried.
She thought of all the practices when it was difficult to pick herself off the mat. All the 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls for weightlifting sessions. All the moments her coaches at Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass., pushed her to be better. All the times she visualized winning an Olympic title. All that she had overcome.
Harrison, 22, saw her Olympic dream became reality Thursday afternoon in a packed ExCel North Arena. She defeated Great Britain’s Gemma Gibbons in the 78-kilogram division final, becoming the first US judo athlete to win Olympic gold. To celebrate, she walked around the arena draped in an American flag and blew kisses to a spirited crowd that included Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
“It . . . feels like a dream,” said Harrison, of Marblehead, Mass.
Yet winning gold has not been the most difficult challenge of Harrison’s life. When she arrived at Pedro’s training center in 2007, she was an emotionally devastated 16-year-old who had suffered years of sexual abuse by a former coach. She lacked self-esteem, had suicidal thoughts, and hated judo because the sport’s small community whispered about the abuse.
But she had undeniable potential, and in Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jim Pedro Sr., she found the people to build her confidence and career.
When asked what happened to her 16-year-old self, Harrison said, “She’s long gone. I’m a strong, confident young woman and I’m Olympic champion. I’m just lucky I was around the right kind of people to help me realize that.”
The coach who abused her, Daniel Doyle, is now serving a 10-year federal sentence for that crime.
“I’ve never done anything harder than having to go through [the sexual abuse],” she said. “The Olympics wasn’t a breeze, but it’s something I was focused on and that I wanted. I used everything as my fuel. I was able to push it toward something and have a goal and have a dream and I was able to accomplish it.”
Throughout the tournament, Jimmy Pedro was no more than a shout away, standing in the coach’s area just beside the competition mat. And he shouted encouragement and instructions, reminded Harrison not to make risky attacks and stay emotionally in check.
After the gold medal win, Harrison and Pedro shared more than a few big hugs. For him and his father, Olympic gold was the goal when they established an elite development program six years ago.
“She’s had to overcome so much,” said Jimmy Pedro, who won bronze medals in judo at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics. “She’s been through so many tough situations, that to step on the Olympic mat is nothing compared to what she’s already beaten. That’s what gives her incredible resolve. That’s what makes her a true champion with character. That’s what makes her story so amazing, to go from somebody who’s questioning whether they want to go on and live life or not to Olympic champion. It’s a true success story.”
Harrison sees the gold medal as something more. She hopes the Olympic title gives her a platform to promote judo and send positive messages to abuse victims and others struggling through difficult times.
Her lesson for others? “This just proves that you’re only a victim if you allow yourself to be,” she said. “And nothing can stop you.” Harrison wants to be a role model, “USA Judo’s poster girl,” and “be the person who stands up and fights for what’s right.”
“I wanted to tell my story and I wanted to get it out to victims all over the world,” said Harrison, originally from Middletown, Ohio, who first discussed her sexual abuse publicly last fall. “I wanted people to know it was OK. It was definitely therapeutic. The first time I told the story I cried the whole time. It got a little bit easier every time. I’m at peace. I’m Olympic champion.”
Harrison and Pedro sensed Thursday would be a special day from the start. On Thursday Harrison had what athletes call “a white moment,” in which she was filled with confidence she would win and felt in the peak performance zone.
After Harrison scored an ippon — a full-force throw that puts an opponent on her back, worth 100 points — to defeat Hungary’s Abigel Joo, that confidence only intensified. The stockier Harrison had struggled in past matches against the tall, lefthanded Joo. So the Pedros had geared much of Harrison’s training toward defeating Joo.
In the semifinal round, Harrison defeated top-ranked Mayra Aguiar of Brazil, triumphing with another ippon with 14 seconds remaining. It was such a strong showing that Jimmy Pedro proved prophetic after the match when he said, “Today is Kayla Harrison’s day. We’re going to make Olympic history here.”
History was made in the final when Harrison overpowered the No. 42-ranked Gibbons and overcame a British crowd chanting for her opponent. Harrison scored one yuko, a throw that places an athlete on her side worth one point, at the 3:54 mark and another at the 59-second mark. Previously, the best finish by an American in the 78 kg (half-heavyweight) division was ninth by Amy Tong in 2000.
“I didn’t come here for silver,” said Harrison. “I came here for gold. I was just trying to focus on: It’s just another girl. It’s just another tournament. She’s the only girl in your way. You win this and you’re done. I was trying not to realize that it was the finals of the Olympic Games. I went out there and I tried to stay aggressive the whole time. We do a drill at the Pedros where we’re down by a yuko and we have to hustle, hustle, hustle. I just pretended I was down for a yuko, not up by a yuko. I made sure that I imposed my will.”
Harrison plans to celebrate around London with family and her fiancé, Aaron Handy, her training partner back in Ohio and the friend she first confided in about Doyle.
When asked what sight she most wanted to see in London, Harrison smiled, lifted her gold medal, and said, “This.”
Then she acknowledged a desire to visit the set of “Harry Potter.” Upon returning to Massachusetts, Harrison will take her EMT exam and, perhaps, start wedding planning, though she hopes to be busy enjoying a victory lap of sorts and promoting judo.
“I hope [my gold medal] changes America’s perspective on judo,” said Harrison. “I hope to be able to use it to benefit everyone in my sport. I love my sport. It’s the best sport in the world. Hopefully, this will help create that splash of new judo interest.”