LONDON (Reuters) - As the United States’ flag rose in the London ExCel Centre, the country’s first judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison broke down in tears as the enormity of her achievement in overcoming child sex abuse to become an Olympic champion sank in.
“I was kind of reflecting back on my life and everything that it’s taken to get here and everything I’ve gone through and everything that everyone in my family has sacrificed,” she said.
“It’s not every four years, it’s every day. I‘m so honored to be America’s first gold medalist and happy to have realized my dream. I‘m America’s first Olympic gold medalist in judo and always will be.”
All Olympian winners have tales of overcoming hardships and challenges but few can compare to that of Harrison.
She started the sport at six at the encouragement of her mother, who was a keen judo fighter.
When she was eight, Daniel Doyle, who became a trusted family friend, started to coach the Middletown, Ohio native. But when she was 13, he took advantage of that trust and proceeded to sexually abuse her for the next three years.
It only ended when she confided in a judo friend Aaron Handy - now her fiance - who told her mother who contacted police.
Bitter, angry and even suicidal, her family moved her hundreds of miles from home to Boston to live and train with Jimmy Pedro, a two-time Olympic judo bronze medalist for the U.S. himself, a step she said saved her life.
“We’ve taken care of her since she was 16-years-old and sort of given her everything in life,” an emotional Pedro told Reuters.
”Making her a champion, putting food on her table, building her back up emotionally and psychologically, physically and technically in the sport of judo, to play that kind of role and have that person give back in so many other ways, it’s a truly unique and special relationship.
“We’ve created history. I told Kayla today was her destiny. It was meant to be. It’s a special, special moment.”
Under Pedro’s guidance she became the first American woman to win a world judo championship in 26 years in 2010 and the first U.S. world champion since Pedro himself in 1999.
But it was the first U.S. Olympic judo gold that both were striving for.
“It was a lifetime’s work. I chased that Olympic gold my whole life and although I couldn’t achieve it myself, I was a big part in helping America win the first ever and I can’t think of more deserving person than Kayla to do it,” Pedro said.
U.S. judo team mate Nick Delpopolo, who reached the quarter-finals of the -73kg category and is very close to Harrison, said it was just reward for everything she’d been through and all her hard work since.
“No one deserves it more than her,” Delpopolo told Reuters.
”You hear these stories about hardships and overcoming them. But no one, deserves it more than Kayla, no one.
“She’s determined, she’s driven, she’s focused. Every day matters to her and that’s why she is at the top of the podium. She doesn’t take anything for granted.”
For Harrison herself, she hopes that her success will be an inspiration to others, whilst also putting U.S. judo on the map.
“Never give up on your dreams, if I can do it anybody can do it,” she said when asked what she hoped her legacy would be.
“Things have happened and now my life is a dream. I‘m living my dream right now. I hope that America loves me and loves my story and hopefully a little girl or little boy sees this and they say wow, mom, I want to do that,” she added.
”I want kids overcome being victims. Helping others realize their dream and that there’s more to life than what they’re living in right there.
“I want to help kids realize their Olympic dreams. I want to change the sport and change people’s lives.”
Grinning broadly as she spoke to reporters, her future plans also of course include marriage to Handy.
“We haven’t picked a date yet. I’d get married right now,” she said laughing.
Reporting by Michael Holden