Kayla Harrison — How An Olympic Champion Is Busy Changing the World

By Tong Chen, bostonese.com

Boston, May 15, 2014, —- My first ever handshake with an Olympic Champion came after 30-minute car ride from Boston to Stoneham. Kayla Harrison was practicing judo with her coach Jimmy Pedro at the dojo. She easily carried Pedro on the back and threw him down like handling a little boy rather than a grown man.

Harrison greeted me with a firm handshake and sat down for our scheduled interview. As the first American who won the Olympic Judo gold medal, and also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Harrison had a lot of stories to tell. Training for another Olympic gold, writing a book, launching a national nonprofit and an acting career, Harrison kept herself busy. Her fighting spirit made her an Olympic champion, and is making the world a better place for all of us.
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“I have been through a lot of hard times, but that doesn’t define me,” said Harrison. “What defines me is how I carry myself and the past I have chosen to take along the way.”

With her mother wanting her to learn how to defend herself, Harrison started to practice judo when she was six, but just for fun until she was ten. Harrison started to train judo everyday and won two national championships as a teenager. However, it was during that time that her coach Daniel Doyle was abusing her.

Later reported to the police by Harrison’s mom, Doyle was sentenced to federal prison. But as a teenager, Harrison didn’t understand that kind of relationship. She thought she loved her coach and thus was willing to do anything for him. But Harrison later realized what was happening to her. She was desperate and even tried to commit suicide.

“All I wanted to do was to escape.” Harrison said it was her mother who took the steps and was always with her, trying to help her go through that period. “My mother was very strong.”

At the age of 16, one month after the abuse was exposed, Harrison moved from her hometown Ohio to Massachusetts to train with Olympic coach Pedro. Harrison said Pedro and her teammates are also who were always helping her to go through the difficulties. “They didn’t merely treat me as an athlete but as a person,” said Harrison. “It was what I really needed.”

In the 2012 London Olympics, Harrison defeated British Judoka Gemma Gibbons, and won the gold medal in the class of 78 kg. After the judge announced her victory, she hugged tightly with Pedro and cried.

Casting that moment back, Harrison said it was an amazing day. Judo is a Japanese martial art, which requires practitioners’ skills to either throw or takedown the opponent. Prior to Harrison’s championship, most Olympic gold medalists were Japanese or Asians from other countries like South Korea and China. Thus becoming the first American who won the gold medal, Harrison felt extremely proud and even thought she was like being in the clouds.

However, Harrison was not overwhelmed by the glory of her gold medal. When she was on the podium, she realized that with or without that medal, she would always be a happy person. “It really just signified an amazing end of a very long journey,” said Harrison.

Now, Harrison has a full life — practicing judo two times a day and six days a week. She has also set up her foundation “Fearless” and will soon star in the movie “Don’t Call Me Sir.”

After the Olympics, Harrison shared her story with the public, which aims to inspire those who share similar experience with her. She enjoys being a speaker, but she couldn’t be everywhere at once. She found although there are regional and local organizations doing amazing things, there was no big organization for victims or survivors of sexual abuse. Thus, Harrison started her foundation and wanted more and more people to be educated.

Olympic champion Kayla Harrison starts her new journey from Tong Chen on Vimeo.

Now she is preparing to write her first book for the foundation. “I want my readers to know what sexual abuse looks like and where they could go for help.” Harrison wanted her book to be an educational tool or even a guideline of sexual abuse. She is also now taking two writing classes at Harvard, which she thought would be helpful for her book.

The other part of the foundation is to create a judo program for the victims, which Harrison hopes could be a therapy for them to distract the hurt and go through the hard times. “Judo was my therapy which helped me to become whole again. But for others, it might be knitting, painting or singing,” said Harrison. But her goal is not merely providing judo lessons, but various things and she even hopes the foundation will be bigger and outgrow her.

“I want to change the world,” said Harrison. Now she wants to win again in 2016 Rio Olympics. Besides her judo life, Harrison is also starting a foundation to help those who suffered from sexual abuse as well. She is even about to launch her new career — acting.

Carrying so much experience, Harrison has also grabbed attention by Bo Svenson, a Swedish-born film director. Svenson was also an actor and has a judo black-belt. This August, he will work with Harrison to depict the true story of Rusty Kanokogi, the pioneer of women’s judo competition at the Olympics.

Kanokogi was an American judo legend. In 1959, she disguised herself as a man and won a medal at a YMCA judo tournament but had to return it when people found out that she was a woman.

“It is important that the world learns about the hardships and bias that women encounter in society,” Svenson wrote in the email. “It is grossly unfair as women are often the more capable gender.”

Svenson chose Harrison as the actress because of her personality, athletic skill and focus. But upon the lack of Harrison’s acting experience, Svenson is not concerned at all. “She has proven as an athlete that she can overcome physiological challenges,” Svenson wrote.

Harrison said Kanokogi has always been her hero since she began to practice judo. When Svenson called her, she was very surprised but said ‘yes’ right then. “To be able to portray her comes to a full circle because she is one of the reasons I won the gold medal and I am going to be a reason to let her legacy live on,” said Harrison.

When asking her which is more difficult — acting or judo, Harrison said acting without hesitation. To a judoka like Harrison whose life was full of training, acting is an unknown world that she doesn’t know whether she will be good or bad, funny or sad.

“I don’t know exactly what to expect,” said Harrison. “It’s a new journey.”

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