Kayla Harrison, a 21-year-old Middletown, Ohio native now living in Wakefield, Mass., is the United States' best hope for its first-ever Olympic gold medal in women's judo. SI.com spoke to the 2010 world champion last month about moving up weight classes, going public with her difficult past and life after judo.
SI.com: How did you first become involved with judo?
Kayla Harrison: My mother took judo in college, just kind of as a class. So when I was a little girl, she wanted me to learn self-defense and she enrolled me in the local dojo. Probably about a year later I went to my first competition and I just kind of fell in love with it. I loved traveling and going to hotels and getting to swim in the swimming pools and hanging out with the team.
SI.com: Fast-forward a few years to 2008, when you moved up from the 62-kilogram [136.4-pound] weight class to the 78-kilogram class. What was that transition like?
Harrison: At first I was miserable. I was so sure that there was no way I would ever win. The girls were way too big, way too strong. I thought I was never gonna win a tournament -- or match -- again. I was young, but luckily my strength trainer, Paul Soucy, knew what to do, so I ended up putting on some muscle and eventually I stopped thinking about [other competitors] and just focused on myself. The thing that I really learned from it is that if you're gonna win, you'll win at any weight class. It doesn't matter. You should never have to cut weight because you're afraid you're gonna lose to somebody. If you wanna win, if you're a winner and you're a champion, then you'll win at any weight class.
SI.com: Was the change drastic?
Harrison: It was a drastic change, but it was a change that happened very, very slowly. For the first year that I fought at 78 kilos, I probably didn't weigh more than 73 kilos. Now, even comfortably eating whatever I want, I weigh about 76 kilos on average. And naturally, it was easy for me because I was cutting like 20 pounds for 63 kilos. So I was ready to do it, I just needed the right tools. Paul had me doing a lot of Olympic lifts and his motto is that I might not have the most body to train with, I might not be the best technician at judo, but there's nobody in the world that's gonna outlast me in a match and there's nobody in the world that's gonna be in better shape than me.
SI.com: When did you realize you could compete at that weight level?
Harrison: The two key moments were, first when Ronda Rousey took a bronze in the 2008 Olympics and I was there to see it. I was like, Well, I train with Ronda. We go at it. I give her a hard time. I'm three years younger than her -- there's no reason why I can't be here someday too. Then a month later I ended up winning the junior world championships. That event is a huge kind of indicator as to who the future stars of the sport are gonna be. So after I won that I was kind of like, Oh, yeah, I can do this.
SI.com: Your gold medal at the world championship in 2010 was the first for an American since your coach, Jimmy Pedro, in 1999, and the first for an American woman since 1984. What do those accomplishments mean to you personally?
Harrison: There's no greater feeling in the world than being No. 1 at something that you love. Words can't describe it, you know? One of my favorite pictures of all time -- I mean, it's the greatest moment of my life to date, for sure -- is of when I come off the mat after I win and I give Jimmy a hug and I'm crying. I didn't even realize I was crying because it was so surreal, that moment. I look at it and I'm like, Wow. It's weird to me, because my heroes have always been world champions. Jimmy is a world champion and all the people I look up to in the sport are world champions, so it's a little surreal. It was fantastic.
SI.com: You recently went public with your story of sexual abuse at the hands of your former coach, Daniel Doyle, who is now serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison. Why did you decide to come forward now, and how has the response been?
Harrison: For so long, I've wanted two things: to be a world champion and an Olympic champion. And so reaching one of those goals, it's a life-changing event and you definitely look back and you reflect on everything that's happened that made you get where you are and made you the person you've become. It definitely hasn't been easy, this road that I've been on, but I wouldn't change a moment. I'm such a strong, mentally tough, capable woman now. But also, I realize that I'm only a victim if I let myself be a victim. This whole thing with Penn State and all this -- there's such a taboo for victims of sexual abuse, and it shouldn't be that way. That is a crime. What did the victims do wrong? Why is there this stigma on them? So hopefully a little boy or a little girl or an adult reads my story and has the courage to say something to anyone or to help someone. Maybe they know that something has been going on and they're afraid to say something. They can decide, 'Today, I'm gonna take a stand.' You would be surprised about how many people I've talked to since that story came out who have said, 'I've had something similar happen to me when I was younger and I wish I would have said something.' It just blows your mind. Hopefully I can make a difference in that way.
SI.com: You just won the Grand Prix in China and a silver at a Grand Slam in Tokyo. Do you feel like you're on a hot streak heading into an Olympic year?
Harrison: The life of an athlete is peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. You cannot constantly be on top and peak for every event -- it doesn't work that way, and it took me a long time to realize that. That doesn't mean that I don't want to win every single thing that I enter, but I know that I have a lot to work on until the Olympics. The point of going to those tournaments was to get my hands on [China's Yang Xiuli] because she's the Olympic champion and I had never fought her in a competition, and to get matches in, get mat time in, get hard matches in and work on what I need to work on against lefties [and] figure some stuff out. It's all kind of just practice, experience, training for the Olympics. I feel good. I feel like I'm probably a little bit ahead of schedule for where I want to be when the Olympics roll around.
SI.com: How would winning a gold feel?
Harrison: It will be a life-altering, life-changing moment for me. It's weird because my whole existence has been the Olympics for so long that reaching that goal will -- I don't know what I'm going to do. It's gonna be like a blank page. But I'll definitely feel complete.
SI.com: Do you have any plans for your post-London life?
Harrison: Oh boy. I've started the process of becoming EMT-certified. I took the civil service test. I'm on the list in my town to be a firefighter, so if a job opens up, I can potentially be a firefighter. But I'm going to take some time away from judo for sure. I haven't decided really what I'm gonna do about that, but I would love, love, love to go to college and see what that's all about. I switched to online schooling when I was 16, and I chose not to continue my education through college in online schooling just because I kind of want that experience. So I'd definitely like to go to college and see if I'm good at anything else in this world. We'll see.