Four years after emerging from the horrors of childhood abuse to win America’s first Olympic judo gold, Kayla Harrison is a woman on a mission as she returns to defend her crown in Rio.
Harrison, 26, provided one of the most compelling stories of the 2012 Games when she muscled her way to victory in the 78 kilogram category.
Only five years earlier, Harrison had been a teenager battling suicidal thoughts as she struggled with the impact of abuse inflicted upon her by her childhood coach Daniel Doyle.
Doyle, 16 years her senior, was jailed for 10 years in November 2007 after pleading guilty to abusing Harrison over a three-year period starting when she was 13.
Since winning her Olympic title, Harrison has launched a foundation aimed at helping victims of abuse and is working on an educational resource that she hopes will eventually be part of school curriculums across America.
“I’m writing a book with a psychologist which is intended to be a guideline of what sexual abuse is and I want that book to be in your seventh grade kid’s class curriculum,” Harrison said.
– Feelings of guilt –
“One of the reasons sexual abuse is so prevalent is because we don’t talk about it. I remember growing up there was all of this material on ‘Stranger Danger’ and ‘Say No to Drugs’ and ‘Safe Sex.’
“Now there’s all this material on anti-bullying. But there’s no material on what to do if someone tries to take advantage of you. And I think that is a big big problem.”
Harrison said she spent more than a year consumed by feelings of guilt and shame after Doyle’s abuse came to light, often crying herself to sleep whilst grappling with suicidal feelings.
The road to recovery began when she left her hometown in Ohio to begin training in Boston under the guidance of Olympic bronze medallist Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jimmy senior, aka “Big Jim.”
A training partner at the Pedros’ gym was Ronda Rousey, who would go on to become the first American woman to win a judo medal at the 2008 Olympics before finding fame and fortune as a star of mixed martial arts.
Although the two judokas developed a fierce rivalry in training, Harrison credits Rousey, three years her senior, with helping to rebuild her shattered life.
– Rousey support –
“She was a major part of my life at a time when I could have gone either way,” Harrison reflects.
“I was in a very bad place when I first met Ronda.
“The fact that she was there for me, and that all my team-mates were there for me, means they all hold a special place in my heart for me.”
Rousey’s care extended to buying food for Harrison to stepping in on her behalf to confront trolls on the internet.
“To be quite honest there were days when I had no money. And Ronda would go buy the groceries so we could eat. There’s this big tough Ronda persona out there. But the Ronda I remember is the one who used to buy food for the week.”
Unsuprisingly, the parallels between the women have led many to wonder if Harrison’s future lies in the money-spinning world of mixed martial arts.
Rousey is now a multi-millionaire and one of the most high-profile female athletes in America.
Harrison, a gold medallist, remains relatively obscure. Would she consider switching sports?
“I’ve definitely thought about it,” Harrison said.
“I never say never. Judo is my first love, it’s my passion. But who doesn’t want to be famous?
“I think it takes a special kind of person to do what Ronda does. But, yeah, I think I could step in a cage and beat someone up for a lot of money.”