LONDON – Ohio native Kayla Harrison made Olympic history today, winning the first Olympic gold ever for Team USA judo and making a stand for victims of sexual abuse.
“Kayla Harrison is an amazing athlete. Mentally she was ready to win, physically she was ready to win today,” said her coach, Jimmy Pedro. “You're talking about someone who came from the lowest point in her life who didn't know if she wanted to go on anymore, to now standing on top of the Olympic podium as an Olympic champion, the first American to ever do it in the sport of judo. She just put the sport of judo on the map. Kayla Harrison, Olympic champion baby, we did it!”
Harrison moved to the Boston area from Middletown, Ohio, six years ago after her former judo coach was sent to prison for sexually abusing her, and Harrison said today she is proud to stand for those who have faced similar struggles.
“Honestly, I've never done anything harder than having to go through that,” Harrison said, with the gold medal around her neck. “And the Olympics wasn't a breeze, but … it was something I was focused on and I wanted and I used everything as my fuel. I was able to push it toward something positive and go out and be able to accomplish it.
“This is proof that you're only a victim if you allow yourself to be, and nothing can stop you, nothing can stop you. … I want to be the person that stands up and fights for what's right.”
Harrison's mother, father, sister, brother, grandparents and multiple friends from both Ohio and Boston watched from the stands in T-shirts that read “Team Kayla.”
“I cried when she won. I'm about to cry right now,” Harrison's 17-year-old sister Aura said just before the medal ceremony. “I'm freaking out. It really didn't feel like the Olympics until just now.
“She has always, always been determined. If she wants something, she gets it. She's always been that way. I already knew she was going to win. She wanted it more than anyone.”
Having moved away and missing her family life back in Ohio, taken by USA judo and the Pedros into a new kind of family, Harrison turned from the gold medal podium to wave to her family, then patted her heart and said, “I love you,” as she made her victory lap around the Excel Center.
“I've missed being a big sister to them, I've missed my family,” Harrison said. “We were a very close family and I grew up going to my grandparent's house every Sunday for dinner. It's something I can never give back to them, but I can try to by doing this. They sacrificed everything for me to get this, and I hope it was worth it.”
Harrison jumped into Pedro's arms after controlling the entire gold medal bout against Britain's own Gemma Gibbons, despite the crowd obviously rooting for the home country.
“Kayla sounds a lot like Gemma,” Harrison said, after pretending the crowd's chants were for her.
KaylaHarrisonGoldMedalMatchAssociated PressTeam USA's Kayla Harrison, white, beat Great Britain's Gemma Gibbbons, blue, in the 172-pound gold medal match in judo at the London Olympics today.
Harrison then jumped into the arms of her fiance Aaron Handy and climbed into the stands, to his surprise. Handy was just prepared to give Harrison a kiss and the American flag that she then placed on her shoulders for the walk around the arena.
“I was surprised she had that much energy left,” Handy said with a laugh. “I'm sure there was relief, sadness, a lot of things rolled into one that you didn't expect to feel. But I was really happy for her. … It's the culmination of her athletic career. When you start judo, that's what you want to do. You hear stories that no one in the U.S. has ever won a gold medal. You want to be the first. And she did it.”
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