Kayla Harrison fought her way to the top at the London Olympics Wednesday, becoming the first U.S. athlete ever to win an Olympic gold medal in judo. She took gold in the women's 78-kg division, beating local British favorite Gemma Gibbons in the final match. While it was a tough battle, she's faced far more difficult fights off the judo mat.
Many athletes have inspiring stories of overcoming obstacles to make it to the Olympics, but none is more poignant than Harrison's. As reported in the Boston Globe and elsewhere, at age 16, Harrison revealed that her coach, Daniel Doyle, had been sexually abusing her for years. She bravely brought charges and took the witness stand to testify against her abuser. He subsequently pled guilty and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for his heinous crime.
That kind of experience might make many girls want to turn away from the sport and the public eye, and Kayla Harrison admits to having hated judo and even entertaining thoughts of suicide for a time after the trial. Her mom encouraged her to get away from the gossip-mongers in her home state of Ohio and arranged for her to train at Pedro's Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass., where Harrison developed a strong bond with father-and-son coaches Jimmy Pedro and Jim Pedro Sr. With their guidance and her own skill and determination, she gained the strength and confidence to compete and win.
Now, Harrison says, she wants to use her new status as an Olympic gold medalist to bring a positive message to other victims of abuse. She wants to let people know that they can stand up for themselves and stop being victims. By not only coming forward to make sure her abuser went to jail but also speaking freely and publicly about her experiences, the 22-year-old Harrison is a true role model for young women and men who may be suffering in silence. It's that kind of spirit that makes a true champion.