LONDON – Kayla Harrison took her spot atop the medal stand, determined not to cry during the national anthem.
She was in tears after one note.
On this day, emotion was the only thing she could not beat.
America finally has an Olympic judo champion – a 22-year-old from Ohio who was sexually abused by a former coach as a child, became a self-described “teenage punk” who hated everything about her sport and then found a way to turn everything around.
Harrison took the final step in the journey Thursday. She beat Britain’s Gemma Gibbons 2-0 for the gold medal in the women’s under 78-kilogram division.
“Kind of just reflecting back on my life. Everything it’s taken to get here, and everything that I’ve gone through,” Harrison said. “I’m America’s first gold medalist in judo – and always will be.”
Not only did she end America’s 0-for-forever Olympic title drought in judo, but she did it in an arena where British flags were flying wildly. Gibbons was a surprise finalist, spurred by a crowd that chanted her name in every match.
Even that wasn’t enough to take down Harrison.
“Kayla was a great competitor,” Gibbons said. “She is a very deserved winner.”
With Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a black belt and the honorary president of the International Judo Federation, and British Prime Minister David Cameron among those in the VIP section, Harrison never ceded control of the final.
She had to rally from behind in her quarterfinal match, then topped world No. 1 Mayra Aguiar of Brazil in the semifinals.
That left only Gibbons in her way.
“It was meant to be,” said Harrison’s coach, Jimmy Pedro, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist. “This is your destiny, Kayla Harrison. This is your destiny.”
Pedro, who has spent a lifetime chasing Olympic gold, gave Harrison the same pep talk on Thursday over and over again. He said she must have heard it 150 times throughout the day:
“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.”
“Never give up on your dreams,” Harrison said. “I mean, if I can do it, anybody can do it. Things have happened, but now, my life is a dream. I’m living my dream right now.”
Harrison moved to Massachusetts when she was 16 and found refuge at Pedro’s Judo Center.
Her mother was pursuing charges against Daniel Doyle, who had started coaching her when she was 8 and – beginning when she was 12, perhaps earlier – sexually abused her on trips to Venezuela, Estonia and Russia. Harrison had mistaken it, for years and years, for being in love.
The coach was later sentenced to 10 years in prison and expelled for life from USA Judo, the sport’s national governing body.
After Harrison came forward, her mother knew that needed a new beginning. So to Massachusetts she went, alone. Her mother had placed her future in the hands of Pedro and his father.
It was not easy. She simply did not want to be there.
In time, the trust issues were worked out. Harrison got back into school. She believed in what Pedro and his father, whom everyone calls “Big Jim,” were telling her. Eventually, she believed in herself again as well.
“She should inspire many to be brave, to have courage, to realize that they’re a victim and to come forward and move on with their lives,” Pedro said.
“Mentally, they get twisted into thinking that they’re somebody they’re not. And Kayla Harrison stepped forward. She should be a hero. She is a hero. And she’s one brave, tough, tough girl – one that no man would want to mess with if you don’t know judo, I’ll tell you.”
Harrison and Pedro had an agreement before London: If Harrison, who is engaged to a firefighter and is working to become one herself, had not won the gold medal, she would compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Except she did win. So retirement is now an option. Pedro will undoubtedly lobby to keep her around, but Harrison is, at best, noncommittal.
“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,” Harrison said.
She went on: “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.”