LONDON -- After five minutes of draining, ferociously focused grappling brought her a 2-0 victory over over Great Britain's Gemma Gibbons in the women's 78-kilogram (172 lb.) judo final, Kayla Harrison of the U.S., a broad smile on her face, went for one more hold, leaping from the competition platform into the arms of her coach, Jimmy Pedro. With U.S. fans rocking the ExCel's North Arena 2, Pedro whose two bronze medals in four Olympics and relentless dedication to the sport made him the rugged face of American judo held Kayla off the ground in a joyous bear hug as coach and athlete celebrated the first Olympic gold medal ever won by a U.S. jukada.
"What an amazing athlete," Pedro said moments later as Harrison made her way to the medal ceremony. "She overcame so much. Now she's on top of the Olympic podium."
For any athlete, of course, the Olympic victory stand represents the culmination of an extraordinary personal journey. That's true for Harrison, certainly, in athletic terms. But for her this gold is also well, culmination seems too facile a term. Call it a remarkable point on the even more profound personal journey she has had to make, a journey inextricably bound to her sport.
Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, Kayla was introduced to judo at age six. Her mother had taken a class in college and thought it would be good for her daughter to learn self-defense. "I fell in love with the sport of it," recalls Kayla.
In time, though, even as she excelled in youth competition, a darker element took hold. For nearly six years, beginning when she was around 11, Kayla was sexually abused by her judo coach. Daniel Doyle, 16 years her elder, mentored Kayla, picking her up after school for practice, working with her at the gym and eventually travelling with her to competitions all over the world.
"He was my sun," Harrison has said. "Whatever he wanted, I would do. I thought it was love."
It was something very different, of course, and in 2007 she found the courage to speak out. Doyle was arrested and, after powerful testimony in court from Kayla, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
After the trial, Kayla's mother, seeking a safe haven and a place where her daughter could continue her judo, sent Kayla to Wakefield, Mass., to live and train with Pedro and his father, Jim Sr., who together run the country's preeminent judo program out of their small, nondescript gym north of Boston. Jimmy had seen the potential in Kayla when he worked with her on a junior national team trip to Italy, and he welcomed the chance to train her.
"Technically, she was nowhere," he says, "but she had the heart of a champion."
For her part, Kayla, a self-described "16-year-old basket case," did not want to be there. "I hated judo," she says. "I didn't want to be that golden girl."
But through through grueling daily workouts in the gym, her technique and fitness improved. And through intensive therapy and the emotional support of the Pedros -- especially "Big Jim" as she calls the father Kayla began to heal emotionally as well.
After winning the world junior title in 2008, then taking first in the 2010 world championships and third at worlds last year, Harrison entered 2012 feeling that she was peaking just in time for London.
"She had won the worlds in 2010, so she knew she could be the best," says Pedro. "And then last year losing in the semis, she got remotivated. She worked harder than ever and she got hungry again. She came to these Games ready to make Olympic history."
Harrison did just that, and in commanding fashion, by beating top-seeded Mayra Aguar in the semifinals before facing the unheralded Gibbons for the gold. After getting an early Yuko, Harrison controlled the action throughout, adding a second Yuko with just over two minutes to go and leaving a clearly tiring Gibbons grasping to the finish.
Then came the history-celebrating embrace with Pedro, after which Harrison ran to the edge of the stands where she lept up and over the rail for yet another hug, this one from finance Aaron Handy, who handed her an American flag.
"He was trying to hand me the flag," Harrison said later, laughing, "And I just wanted to kiss him."
The next hurdle for Harrison? As soon as she returns to Wakefield, she will take the exam to receive her EMT certification with the hope of joining the fire department. "Big Jim told me I get one week, and then we're taking that test," says Harrison.
Beyond that, she says that she wants to be a role model. "I hope I can change America's attitude toward judo, and bring more kids into what is the greatest sport," she says. "And I hope I can change people's attitude toward other things as well. I want other young people to know that you're only a victim if you allow yourself to be. You can be anything you want to be. Nothing can stop you."
Sounds like America's first judo gold medalist is ready to be that golden girl at last.