Legends of judo: Kayla Harrison

US judoka Kayla Harrison hit rock bottom before hitting the heights of her sport and winning two Olympic golds. She is a true legend of judo.

Posted: May 8, 2018 2:17 AM
Updated: May 8, 2018 2:28 AM

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.

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."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 57779

Reported Deaths: 1670
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin18393825
Ramsey7130261
Dakota4112104
Anoka3456113
Stearns284720
Washington197843
Nobles17516
Olmsted164923
Scott143918
Mower10882
Rice10068
Blue Earth8655
Wright8275
Carver8052
Clay75840
Kandiyohi6811
Sherburne6677
St. Louis47519
Todd4212
Lyon4203
Freeborn3561
Steele3341
Nicollet32213
Benton3133
Watonwan3000
Winona25216
Crow Wing22114
Beltrami2070
Martin2045
Le Sueur2031
Chisago1841
Goodhue1838
Otter Tail1823
Cottonwood1730
Becker1481
McLeod1450
Pipestone1449
Polk1393
Douglas1360
Itasca13512
Waseca1330
Carlton1300
Pine1280
Dodge1250
Murray1221
Isanti1140
Unassigned10941
Chippewa1011
Brown852
Meeker852
Wabasha840
Faribault830
Morrison821
Sibley802
Rock750
Koochiching743
Pennington731
Jackson710
Mille Lacs693
Cass662
Fillmore610
Renville605
Lincoln540
Grant521
Swift521
Yellow Medicine500
Pope460
Roseau460
Houston400
Norman370
Redwood320
Wilkin313
Hubbard300
Kanabec301
Aitkin291
Marshall290
Mahnomen251
Wadena240
Big Stone220
Red Lake210
Lake180
Stevens160
Clearwater140
Traverse100
Lac qui Parle60
Kittson30
Cook20
Lake of the Woods10

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 46704

Reported Deaths: 899
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk9874204
Woodbury367351
Black Hawk305462
Linn219887
Johnson200216
Dallas180735
Buena Vista179012
Scott163613
Dubuque159431
Marshall140725
Pottawattamie125724
Story112614
Wapello86633
Muscatine83948
Webster7637
Crawford7263
Sioux6072
Cerro Gordo58617
Tama54329
Warren5421
Jasper45825
Wright4511
Plymouth4488
Louisa37914
Dickinson3784
Clinton3383
Washington28810
Hamilton2431
Boone2342
Franklin2278
Bremer1967
Clarke1903
Emmet1852
Carroll1831
Shelby1761
Clay1741
Hardin1710
Marion1590
Allamakee1524
Poweshiek1518
Jackson1461
Benton1451
Des Moines1432
Mahaska13717
Floyd1322
Guthrie1285
Jones1262
Cedar1231
Buchanan1181
Butler1182
Hancock1172
Henry1143
Pocahontas1141
Lyon1080
Madison1072
Clayton1013
Cherokee991
Harrison990
Lee993
Delaware941
Humboldt941
Iowa941
Taylor940
Monona910
Winneshiek901
Mills850
Calhoun822
Kossuth820
Fayette810
Sac810
Palo Alto800
Mitchell780
Osceola780
Jefferson770
Page770
Grundy761
Winnebago760
Union741
Monroe707
Worth640
Lucas534
Chickasaw520
Davis511
Howard490
Cass481
Montgomery454
Appanoose433
Greene380
Fremont340
Van Buren341
Keokuk311
Ida290
Audubon281
Adair230
Decatur230
Ringgold211
Wayne191
Adams160
Unassigned40
Rochester
Broken Clouds
64° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 64°
Mason City
Overcast
62° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 62°
Albert Lea
Scattered Clouds
64° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 64°
Austin
Overcast
64° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 64°
Charles City
Overcast
63° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 63°
Warming temps and rain inbound
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Community Events