Kayla Harrison celebrates after winning a gold medal in judo on Thursday. (Laurence Griffiths / Getty…)
LONDON -- When Kayla Harrison won the women's 78-kilogram title Thursday, she gave the U.S. its first Olympic gold medal in judo. And if the sport's leaders are hoping to use that victory to popularize judo in the U.S., they couldn't have picked a better spokeswoman than Harrison, a likable, enthusiastic and media-savvy 22-year-old with an inspirational personal story she's not afraid to share.
"Kayla is the individual that you can cheer for at any time," says Eddie Liddie, a bronze medalist in judo at the 1984 Games and now the director of high performance for U.S. Judo. "Class act all the way. With her opponents, with her teammates, with her family.
"You want your girl to grow up ... [and for] her to be Kayla. She’s been the darling of our team for a while. Her face has been the face of USA Judo. She came in, she handled it well. "
Added her coach Jimmy Pedro, a two-time Olympic medalist: "The American media have really embraced her. They followed her. They're going to eat her up from here until forever. She's a good, good person. Cares about other people. Always willing to give back.
"She has an attitude of gratitude. And there's nobody more deserving than her to climb to the top of podium. She never skips a practice, she never skips a run, a lift."
Even her opponents like her, which can be rare in a combat sport. "Kayla was a great competitor," said Great Britain's Gemma Gibbons, whom Harrison beat 2-0 in the final. "She is a very deserved winner."
As a teenager Harrison tried to run away from home and briefly considered suicide after suffering in silence through three years of sexual abuse at the hands of her first competitive judo coach. But she got a second chance at judo -- and, she says, at life -- after leaving small-town Ohio for suburban Boston and the elite judo program run by Pedro and his father, Big Jim.
Harrison has talked openly about her past, hoping, she says, to inspire others suffering as she did to seek help. And now she wants to inspire others to give judo a try too.
"The people I've looked up to my whole life are my heroes. I hope to be one and to bring this sport honor," she said. "I hope that America loves my story and hopefully a little girl or a little boy sees it and says, 'Wow, mom I want to do that.'"
I hope a million little kids sign up for judo in the United States. I hope we have seven Olympic champions in 2016."
Harrison's medal, combined with a bronze won earlier by Marti Malloy in the women's lightweight division (57 kilograms), gave the United States two judo medals in London, a total it last matched in 1988. The United States has never won more than two judo medals in a single Games but almost topped that here since three other judoka made it to their semifinals.