Wakefield resident and judo champ Kayla Harrison scored a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but the 22-year-old’s fight for success began long before those glorious Games. By Alexandra Pecci
In many ways, Kayla Harrison is just like any other 22-year-old Marbleheader: She loves strolling around Old Town with her fiance, Aaron, and getting a bite to eat at The Landing. She spends her summer days on the beach and gets her morning caffeine fix with a cup of diesel at Atomic Cafe. She’s planning her wedding and thinking about where to go to college, possibly to major in English literature (Northeastern is one of the many schools she’s considering). But she’s also doing things that aren’t so typical, like contemplating where to keep her Olympic gold medal. She’s leaning toward getting a custom-made frame for it and displaying it over her fireplace next to her gold medal from the 2010 World Judo Championships. “They’d look good together, I think,” she says.
Harrison made history in London this summer by winning the United States’ first-ever Olympic gold medal in judo. Ask her, though, and she’s still “the same Kayla.” “There’s nothing that’s changed about me,” she says. “The way people perceive me has changed.”
A native of Ohio, Harrison moved to Massachusetts when she was 16 to train at Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, which is run by Olympian Jimmy Pedro and his father, “Big Jim” Pedro, Sr. Harrison credits the Pedros not only for her Olympic victory, but her personal victories, too.
“In this day and age, it’s really, really, really, really hard to find coaches who are good people and who are people who care about the whole package—not just you as an athlete, but you as a person,” Harrison says. She points to the Pedros’ program, Team FORCE—Focus on Results, Civic Responsibility, and Education—which encourages students to give back to the community and get an education. “They created this culture of leaders and champions on and off the mat,” she says. “It’s something that I’m very, very proud to be a part of. I’m proud to be able to carry on the Pedro legacy.”
The Pedros gave Harrison more than the drive to compete, though; they gave her the strength to get back on the mat and back to a normal life after years of sexual abuse by her former coach, who is now serving a prison term for his crimes. The abuse started when Harrison was just 13 years old. For years, she kept the details of it private, but recently decided to speak publicly about her experience after reading about the boys who were allegedly raped and abused by a football coach at Penn State. “The Penn State thing really lit a fire under me,” she says.
Now, she’s speaking out about what happened to her in an effort to remove the burden of shame from the shoulders of young victims. “I was really tired of the taboo placed on victims,” she says. “I just feel like the only way to break that taboo is to be a strong, confident role model for people and to speak out about it.” Although Harrison acknowledges that it can be tiring to talk about the abuse constantly, she says she’s at peace now and wakes up every morning hoping to make a difference.
“I don’t care how much it sucks or how painful it is for me to relive my past,” she says. “If one less kid goes through what I went through, then what I’m doing is worth it.” Despite having to constantly talk about her experience, Harrison says she’s careful not to “slip back into that victim mentality.”
When she fights, the word “victim” is easily replaced by the word “champion.” She struggles to describe the feelings that surge through her mind and body when she’s competing. “Athletes call them ‘white moments,’” she says. “It’s almost like an out-of-body experience…it’s like you know you’re going to win before it even happens, and that’s what happened the day of the Olympics.”
She relies on music to calm her down and to amp her up on fight days. Before tournaments, she listens to John Mayer, George Strait, and a lot of country to keep “chill.” At the tournament, though, it’s a different story. Pumping in her ears right before she hits the mat? Eminem’s anthem “Lose Yourself.” “I have a whole Eminem playlist that I listen to,” she says. “He gets me amped. He gets me ready for war.”
“War” hasn’t been on her agenda for months, though. For the first time in a long time, Harrison’s life isn’t revolving around training. “I lived, ate, breathed, and slept judo,” she says. “It was 25 hours a day, eight days a week. It was every time I opened the fridge; it was every time I made a decision to go out or not go out, or what shoes to put on.”
Harrison is now supposed to be “taking a break and enjoying life.” But judo has been replaced with a new set of demands, like interviews with reporters, shopping for red carpet dresses, having her hair and makeup done, and showing up for photo shoots (like this one). “I’m just trying to get used to it and sort of, like, wrap my head around it,” she says.
Her Olympic fame might feel surreal, but she’s savoring the experience. “The one thing about the Olympics is that it doesn’t last forever; people only have Olympic fever for so long,” she says. “The shine has already worn off my gold medal for a lot of people. But not for me…never for me.”
Despite her respite from training, Harrison misses judo tremendously, and says her teammates are her best friends. “Judo is my best friend,” she adds, “and my coaches are my heroes. So I miss that world. I miss that world where I fit in.” She’ll be returning to that world soon; she’ll likely start training seriously again in January, and has her eye on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I always thought that if I won a gold medal I would be satisfied, and I thought that I would be able to walk away from the sport,” she says. “But, if anything, it’s only made me hungrier.” Harrison says her coach, Jimmy Pedro, also an Olympic medalist, told her that there was no greater high than competing in front of the entire world, and she discovered he was right.
“I can’t wait until the next Olympics,” Harrison says. “I can’t wait to feel that feeling again.”