The story of Kayla Harrison has been one of my favorite stories thus far in the Olympics. If you haven’t heard of her, don’t feel bad. Neither had I until this morning. But today Ms. Harrison made history for the United States, becoming the first athlete (man or woman) to win a gold medal for the country in the sport of Judo. Now, I’ll admit I know very little about that sport besides the fact that it’s some form of martial art, but that’s not the important thing here, the story of Ms. Harrison is. See, she was a victim of sexual abuse by a former coach and because of that became a self-described “teenage punk” who hated everything about Judo. Today, that sport gave her more gratification than anyone could ever ask for.
At 22 years old, the girl from Ohio who moved to Wakefield, Massachusetts at age 16 to find refuge from a situation that no young girl should ever be placed in, and also to train with Jimmy Pedro, a two time Olympic bronze medalist in the sport. That decision is one that Harrison says “saved her life” as she was bitter, angry, and often suicidal after a trusted family friend, Daniel Doyle, began abusing her after she turned 13. Doyle, a Judo instructor from Spring Valley, Ohio took advantage of his role as her mentor and for over three years had improper sexual relations with Harrison, who unfortunately thought that she “loved” him and that they would get married when she turned 18. In 2007, Doyle pled guilty to charges that he had sex with the 14 year old student of his, while also admitting several sexual encounters between August 2003 and April 2007 with Harrison. Doyle chaperoned Harrison to competitions in Venezuela, Estonia, and Russia and also admitted to videotaping at least one incident. The abuse only ended when Harrison confided the encounters to a fellow Judo friend, Aaron Handy (who is now her fiancé), and he told her mother who then contacted police.
They call victims of sexual abuse “survivors” and that is exactly what Kayla Harrison is. She survived the abuse, her and her family got Doyle locked up, and she also got away from the situation so that she could focus on her own life and making something of it despite the horrible circumstances. Harrison trained with one of America’s best Judo competitors of all-time in Jimmy Pedro, and together they had the goal and vision of her becoming the United States first Judo champion. Today, that vision was realized.
Jimmy Pedro gave Harrison a pep talk that he’d given her at least 150 times throughout her years training with him. “There’s one girl in front of you. That’s all we worry about is that one girl. Are you better than her? Are you stronger than her? Are you tougher than her? Yeah? Well, then, go beat her – because she’s in your way to be an Olympic champion. Today, Kayla Harrison, nobody is going to beat you. Today, you will make history. Today, Kayla Harrison is an Olympic Champion.”
You already know what happened next. Harrison, in front of a pro-Great Britain crowd, went out and won 2-0 over England’s Gemma Gibbons. The win made Harrison the United States’ first ever Judo Champion, to which she said after the match, “Kind of reflecting back on my life. Everything it’s taken to get here, and everything that I’ve gone through…I’m America’s first gold medalist in Judo – and always will be.” Damn right, girl.
On the podium Kayla Harrison could not contain her emotion. Before the first note she was already in tears, though she did manage to sing a few notes of “The Star Spangled Banner” later in the national anthem. She said it was like a slideshow going on in her head of everything that she’ s gone through, all the emotions, the hard-work, the sweat, the tears, and the blood, everything came rushing through her head hearing the anthem being played for her; because of her.
In sports, we throw around the word “hero” far too often. It is not heroic to step between the lines of a field, court or as the case may be a dojo (a Japanese term for “place of the way”, where Judo competitions are held). It is heroic to face an individual that sexually abused you for years in court and to make sure that justice is served. It’s also heroic to do everything in your power to make sure that the trials and tribulations that you went through don’t have to happen to other young people. Kayla Harrison is a hero, and she is now focused on helping others. After the match she said, “I can’t wait to get started helping others and helping others realize their dream and realize that there’s more to life than what they are living in right there….I can’t wait. I want to help kids realize their Olympic dreams. I want to help kids overcome being victims. I want to help change – change the sport and change people’s lives”. Harrison also intends to move back to the Boston area and become a firefighter (as her fiancé is now) while sharing her story. Doc Rivers, the current Boston Celtics head coach, has already arranged to have Harrison make an appearance at mid-court at the TD Garden next season, too.
Today, Kayla Harrison’s dream was realized. Today, a girl from Greater Boston by way of southwestern Ohio felt every emotion known to man. Today, a hero’s story was told.
But most importantly: Today, Kayla Harrison became an Olympic champion.