Kayla Harrison Completes Her Comeback With Historic Gold Medal In Judo

Aug 2, 2012
Originally published on August 2, 2012 4:39 pm

Kayla Harrison has defeated Britain's Gemma Gibbons in the women's 78kg judo final. It is the first gold medal for Harrison, 22, a native of Middletown, Ohio — and the first Olympic gold medal for an American in the event.

Harrison sprang out to an early lead in the match and then sealed it with another late score. She holds multiple world champion titles, despite her young age.

You might recall Harrison from an earlier post here on The Torch. In it, Karen Given of WBUR described Harrison's tough training, her resolve to win, and the painful path she's taken to the London Games — which included overcoming the devastating betrayal of her former coach, who sexually abused her.

Update at 11:33 p.m. ET: In the five-minute match, Harrison won by recording two yuko scores, throwing Gibbons twice. The first score came just under one minute into the match; the second came with only one minute and one second remaining.

Harrison reached the gold medal match by defeating world No. 1 Mayra Aguiar of Brazil, less than two hours before the final. From the scene of Harrison's historic performance, the AP describes the moments after her win:

"Gibbons leaped into the arm of U.S. Olympic Coach Jimmy Pedro, who took her under his tutelage six years ago at Pedro's Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass. Pedro, an iconic star as a U.S. competitor, had come up short in his own bid for Olympic gold. But he shared the medal and a massive hug with Harrison Thursday."

Harrison's mother sent her to train with Pedro after her daughter, who was then 16, revealed the abusive relationship with her coach.

The unprecedented U.S. gold medal might finally satisfy another of Harrison's wishes — for people to see her, first and foremost, as the exceptional athlete that she is:

"Do I wish that everyone would just talk about how, you know, awesome I am — and how I could be America's first gold medalist?" she told WBUR's Karen Given. "Yes, I wish that. But America wants that comeback kid story. They want the person who overcame obstacles to reach their goals. And I fit that bill pretty well."

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Moving on now to another Olympics first, today Kayla Harrison won the first ever gold medal for the U.S. in the sport of judo. The 22-year-old won in the 78-kilogram weight class. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, Harrison is famous for her fight in many ways.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: When Kayla Harrison felled the Russian, things were looking good. She executed a flawless ippon, the killer throw that ends a judo match. She was making good on her endlessly intoned mantra: This is my day, this is my purpose.

Opponent number two, an unorthodox Hungarian who Harrison had never beaten, was up next. Well, actually, Harrison had beaten her hundreds of times because her coach, Jimmy Pedro, played the part of the Hungarian in practice every day for weeks.

The preparations went well. And when the Hungarian appeared hurt in their bout, Kayla knew what to do. I asked Nick Delpopolo, Harrison's teammate on Team USA, to provide the expert analysis.

NICK DELPOPOLO: You know, Kayla smelled blood. She went after and she took advantage of the situation. She fought great. She came back from behind, and that's what it takes to win a tournament like this.

PESCA: Judo is one of those sports you don't play; you give yourself over to. You commit to a coach or a teacher at a young age. Harrison and her family's trust was betrayed by a coach who sexually abused Kayla starting when she was 13. Harrison went public a few months ago after she was appalled that Penn State students had taken to the streets in defense of Joe Paterno. She cried all the way through her first full interview on the subject. She's cried a little less each time after that.

The Olympics, by comparison, aren't a breeze, she says. But flipping 170-pound opponent on her back is what she's best at. Heading into the third match, Harrison had stretched her international winning streak to 18 in a row. Her last lost back in February was to Mayra Aguiar. Aguiar was Kayla's next opponent. It should have been close. Harrison made sure it wasn't, thrilling Coach Pedro.

JIMMY PEDRO: She's the number one girl in the world, and Kayla took her apart. I mean, she physically looked so strong today. We've got everybody going in the right direction. I'm fully confident Kayla's going home with a gold today.

PESCA: Pedro took in Harrison when she was 16, fragile and depressed. He was by turns tough and loving. He had the credentials to back up his methods, credentials that four days ago, Harrison described this way:

KAYLA HARRISON: Jimmy is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist. He's world champ. He's literally the best - amongst the great athlete we have as of right now.

PESCA: Now Kayla was in the finals. In her way, Brit Gemma Gibbons. After the bout, each fighter, totally focused, said they had not noticed that Vladimir Putin and David Cameron were in attendance.


PESCA: About a minute in, Harrison scored a yuko, a half throw. Three minutes later, another.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the winner, Harrison, United States of America.

PESCA: After a victory, a champion will sometimes say: nothing was going to stop me. It seems obvious in retrospect. To anyone watching Harrison this afternoon, it seemed indisputable in the moment. Afterward, teammate Nick Delpopolo described finally seeing an American wearing gold.

DELPOPOLO: I'm not even shocked because I kind of knew she was going to do it as the day went on, but to finally see it, it's like, wow, man. It's powerful stuff, you know?

PESCA: For a moment after the medal ceremony, Harrison reflected on the 16-year-old she was who, her words, hated judo and considered ending it all. Now, six years later, Harrison says she wants 7,000 young American girls to sign up for judo lessons tomorrow. She wants to hug her family. She wants, maybe, to have a beer. She was called at various times a hero to her sport, a hero to her country, a hero to other girls who may have been victims. It was clear after all she's been through she's a hero to herself.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.