Kayla Harrison tried soccer, ballet and a few other sports when she was growing up in Ohio. “But it just so happens that throwing people was the thing I wanted to be best in the world at.”
Everything about the martial art judo — throwing, bowing and even being thrown — thrilled 6-year-old Harrison when she started taking classes at a local “dojo,” or martial arts training school.
By 21, she had made it to the 2012 Olympics in London. She surprised nearly everyone by defeating Brazil’s Maya Aguiar — then Number 1 in the world — in the semifinals before winning in the finals against Great Britain’s Gemma Gibbons. It was the first time an American had won Olympic gold in the sport.
A judoka’s other battle
But Harrison had to fight through a personal trauma to get to the 2012 Olympic Games. “I was sexually abused by my first coach, and when I was 16, I finally told my mom what had been happening.”
Charges were pressed, the coach was arrested and sent to prison. And Harrison? “I was sort of a car wreck,” she said. “I was suffering, I was suicidal, I had a lot of bad thoughts. And I didn’t know what to do with it.”
She showed up at the door of the judo gym of former U.S. Olympian Jimmy Pedro and his father. With the support of the two coaches, she got back into school, and started seeing a therapist. “They made it OK to believe in myself again.”
Judo became her life. Under a strict training regimen, Harrison started putting herself back together.
Throughout her ordeal, “I noticed that there is no big organization for survivors of sexual abuse,” no outlet for people to help stop an epidemic of sexual violence, she said. “And it is an epidemic.”
Conservative figures from the U.N. estimate that 35 percent of women worldwide experience sexual violence. The figure approaches 70 percent in some countries. “It’s something that knows no race or color or how much money is in your bank account,” Harrison said.
Accurate reporting is difficult because only an estimated 40 percent of women seek help. Most, like Harrison, look to family and friends first.
Harrison shared a message for others in similar situations: “I know you’re going through hell, and I know that it seems like you’re never going to be happy again,” she said. “But I can promise you that if you believe in yourself, and find the courage to say something, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
After her win in London, Harrison established the Fearless Foundation to fight abuse and help other victims.
She said the program helps others, especially young people, find their passion. “My goal is for it to not be just judo, but tennis or painting or knitting. Whatever it is that makes you feel whole again.”
You can follow Kayla’s bid for a second Olympic gold at @Judo_Kayla. Judo will run from August 6 to 12 in Rio’s Carioca Arena 2, and Harrison will compete on August 11.
Want to learn a judo throw?
In the video below, Kayla Harrison demonstrates a basic judo throwing technique on Dave Fogelson of the U.S. Consulate General in Rio. Perhaps you, too, can train for the next Olympics!