Legends of Judo: Kayla Harrison

For as long as she can remember, Kayla Harrison dreamed of becoming the best in the world at something.Under t...

Posted: May 7, 2018 5:24 PM
Updated: May 7, 2018 5:24 PM

For as long as she can remember, Kayla Harrison dreamed of becoming the best in the world at something.

Under the bright lights of Rio de Janeiro's Carioca Arena in 2016, she bowed out aged 26 as a double Olympic champion.

Kayla Harrison won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016

No other American has ever secured Olympic judo title

Judoka overcame years of sexual abuse

The girl from Middletown, Ohio, went where no other American had ever gone before in her career, dominating judo's half-heavyweight division for almost a decade.

But her journey was anything but easy. To get to the top of the podium, Harrison had to climb from rock bottom.

"Judo saved my life," Harrison wrote in an exclusive CNN column last year. "The sport gave me a goal and something to wake up for.

"If I didn't have that when I was a teenager, I might not even be here."

READ: What judo can teach us about life

Salvation in sport

Sexually abused by her first coach as a teenager, Harrison often considered abandoning her ambitions -- even contemplating suicide.

She thought about running away to faraway places; of being a barista in New York, "where no-one would know me or look at me."

Sport provided the light at the end of the tunnel.

Harrison moved to Boston aged 16 in search of a fresh start after her ordeal, training under US Olympic coach and former world champion, Jimmy Pedro.

It took time to banish her demons and, at least at first, the last thing she wanted to do was train or study.

"There were days when my teammates would drag me out of bed and drive me to school, and they would watch me walk through the school doors," Harrison recalled.

"I didn't want to lift weights, I didn't want to go to school, or go to therapy, but I had no choice. If I wanted to be in the judo house, I had to follow the rules."

The budding judoka was working 50 hours per week at a hardware store in order to pay the rent, alongside her lessons in the classroom and on the tatami.

But gradually judo's self-discipline was instilled and her fighting spirit shone through.

The results soon followed, with Harrison twice crowned US senior national champion before her 18th birthday.

READ: The poster girl of Tokyo 2020 that's still at high school

Top of the world

While the teenager was quickly making a name for herself as one of the most talented Americans the sport had seen, it was another thing entirely to do it on the global stage.

Harrison, though, was just getting started. A gold medal at the Junior 2008 World Championships in Bangkok proved she had what it took to beat the more established nations.

And so it proved, with Harrison topping the podium at the senior World Championships two years later in the home of judo, Japan.

A host of Grand Prix and Grand Slam titles followed in her half-heavyweight division, leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, where Harrison was among the favorites.

Just months before the Games, a partial tear to her medial collateral ligament left her knee the size of balloon, but she wasn't about to let that stop her.

Instead, she defeated longtime rival Mayra Aguiar and home favorite Gemma Gibbons to end a 48-year wait, becoming the first American -- male or female -- to win Olympic gold.

Harrison had fulfilled her childhood ambition and was, indisputably, the world's best in her under 78kg division.

She also transcended the sport, bravely using her newfound platform to speak out about the horrors she had endured, and setting up the Fearless Foundation in order to help others in similar positions.

READ: The Czech heavyweight with the toughest task in sport

Out on a high

Four years later, the Rio 2016 Olympics placed her among truly exalted company.

There Harrison bowed out from the sport on the grandest stage of all, with Aguiar and French star Audrey Tcheumeo below her on the podium and a second gold medal around her neck.

No other American judoka has come close to emulating her since, but Harrison is eager to point out that she couldn't have done it alone.

"I'm not the only one who has made sacrifices," she said. "My coaches, my family, every doctor who has taped my knee or helped me recover from an injury, anyone who's taken a fall for me or sparred with me, helped me be successful.

"It's a hard lifestyle. I spent half my life living from a suitcase, going to Japan, Germany, the UK... But I wouldn't change a second of it because it gave a kid from a middle of nowhere town in Ohio a chance to see the world.

Visit CNN.com/judo for more news and features

"It speaks volumes about my coaches and my teammates that they were able to drag me from rock bottom to the pinnacle."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 512632

Reported Deaths: 10262
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34853555
DeSoto33162432
Hinds32556641
Jackson24830389
Rankin22442402
Lee16238242
Madison14874283
Jones14086247
Forrest13741259
Lauderdale12249324
Lowndes11286193
Lamar10644140
Pearl River9707244
Lafayette8827143
Hancock7835132
Washington7550169
Oktibbeha7204138
Monroe6989179
Pontotoc6970109
Warren6849178
Panola6746134
Neshoba6726210
Marshall6653141
Bolivar6440151
Union633897
Pike5924156
Alcorn5862107
Lincoln5525136
George510180
Prentiss500884
Tippah490282
Itawamba4829107
Scott477499
Adams4766125
Tate4748116
Leflore4723144
Copiah455895
Yazoo455591
Simpson4543117
Wayne442772
Covington432895
Sunflower4299106
Marion4265112
Coahoma4227109
Leake413790
Newton395581
Tishomingo381793
Grenada3775109
Stone365666
Jasper340166
Attala337790
Winston317792
Chickasaw313367
Clay311878
Clarke301195
Calhoun284449
Holmes271289
Smith268952
Yalobusha243747
Tallahatchie231453
Greene224749
Walthall221366
Lawrence217840
Perry213356
Amite209557
Webster205148
Noxubee188642
Montgomery181557
Carroll174441
Jefferson Davis173643
Tunica163239
Benton152639
Kemper144941
Choctaw136527
Claiborne134238
Humphreys131139
Franklin124929
Quitman107528
Wilkinson105939
Jefferson96834
Sharkey65121
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 844951

Reported Deaths: 16115
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1161002006
Mobile741871379
Madison53279732
Shelby38325368
Baldwin38068589
Tuscaloosa36009641
Montgomery34482781
Lee25550263
Calhoun22585518
Morgan22451406
Etowah20013517
Marshall18777316
Houston17727425
St. Clair16875358
Limestone16135218
Cullman16044303
Elmore15904294
Lauderdale14968306
Talladega14189299
DeKalb12967269
Walker12020380
Blount10714192
Autauga10517157
Jackson10157194
Coffee9414192
Colbert9334208
Dale9018191
Tallapoosa7254201
Russell707765
Chilton7018170
Escambia6955143
Covington6932195
Franklin6340108
Chambers5783142
Marion5401130
Dallas5285209
Pike5118109
Clarke484986
Lawrence4826129
Winston4780110
Geneva4642136
Bibb434094
Barbour369480
Butler3434100
Marengo342393
Monroe337066
Randolph334367
Pickens333188
Fayette330085
Henry320666
Hale318189
Cherokee317563
Crenshaw260477
Washington256952
Cleburne254460
Lamar251253
Clay250869
Macon244764
Conecuh192762
Coosa184947
Lowndes178168
Wilcox177438
Bullock152645
Perry141840
Sumter139241
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
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