Many athletes have received gold medals in London. Though only Kayla Harrison can say that she was the first American to win gold in a Judo event. The gold medal represents the culmination of countless hours spent training and competing on the mats. But for Harrison, the time-spent training only begins to scratch the surface of her journey to London.
Harrison began her Judo training at the age of six. From the ages of 13 to 16, she was coached by a man who, over years of coaching, had gained the trust of her family. Harrison and her coach began to travel to international Judo competitions in Russia, Venezuela, and Estonia. During those trips, Harrison was sexually molested by her coach. In 2007, Harrison testified in court and her coach was sentenced to ten years in federal prison.
Harrison quickly became confused, depressed, and even suicidal. Her mother recognized that her teenage daughter was in need of a change of scenery and sent her to Massachusetts to train under Olympic medalist Jimmy Pedro. The move revitalized Harrison’s athletic career and her personal life. She began to gain national attention after winning gold at the 2008 Junior World Championships and the 2010 World Championships.
After Harrison won her Olympic gold medal, a reporter asked her what her toughest obstacle was in her journey to gold. “It’s no secret that I was sexually molested by my former coach. That was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome.” Harrison is the epiphany of a true American hero, not for winning the first American gold medal in Judo, but for showing all sexual abuse victims that their lives and accomplishments do not have to be defined by their assaulters.