RIO DE JANEIRO — Let it never be said Kayla Harrison walked off the judo mat. She leapt. She jumped for joy. She floated into the arms of her coach, into the embrace of the man who saved her life. She squeezed hard and thought, “Is this real right now?” She heard Jimmy Pedro yelling in her ear the same thing he had been telling her all Thursday afternoon.
“Two-time Olympic champion!” Pedro hollered. “Two-time Olympic champion!”
In the last judo match of her life, Harrison had defended her 2012 gold medal, cemented her position as the best judoka in U.S. history and submitted an argument to be considered the best ever. She had cleaved through the half-heavyweight tournament, winning all four of her matches on ippons, a maximum-score, bout-ending maneuver. For the gold she defeated Audrey Tcheuméo of France, the world’s second-ranked judoka, by scoring an ippon with six seconds left when she already had the victory in hand.
After she jumped into Pedro’s arms, Harrison took an American flag from her mother, Jeanie Yazell, and stretched it across her back, arms held wide. When she walked off the floor of Carioca Arena 2, she again spotted Yazell, who wore a shirt with Harrison’s image and the word “FEARLESS” underneath. Harrison wrapped Yazell in her arms. “We did it!” Yazell said. “We did it!”
Harrison, as planned, announced her retirement after the match. She had become a two-time Olympic champion, but Harrison was already much more, equal parts survivor and American badass. She had come so far, farther than could be imagined, and she had nothing left to prove.
“My judo legacy is fulfilled, and I’m happy,” Harrison said. “I’m happy with my career. Now it’s time to go and continue to add to the legacy off the mat and try and change the world.”
Harrison first met Pedro at a national judo tournament at age 14, when she lived in Ohio. Pedro, a two-time bronze medal winner, told Harrison and her coach, Daniel Doyle, to contact him if Harrison wanted to train with him and his father, Jimmy Sr., in Wakefield, Mass. Yazell remembered the offer.
Two years later, Harrison revealed an awful secret to a friend. Doyle, who had been a family friend, had sexually abused her for three years, starting when she was 13. Harrison’s friend told her mother, and her mother called the police. Harrison delivered a victim impact statement at Doyle’s sentencing. A judge ordered him to spend 10 years in jail.
The experience broke Harrison. Yazell called Pedro. “Will you take my daughter?” she asked. “I don’t know what to do with her.” Pedro said yes. Harrison moved to Wakefield. Pedro sought immediate help and checked Harrison into a hospital.
Harrison wanted to quit judo, to disengage from every part of her life. Pedro said he received one panicked call that Harrison had climbed a roof and threatened to jump and another that she had run away and could not be found.
“She wanted to kill herself,” Pedro said. “She didn’t want to live. It’s hard for a 16-year-old girl to go through that, not knowing if she did the right thing or the wrong thing. ‘Did this guy really love me? I put him in prison; is this the right thing?’ That’s a lot to deal with. It took a lot of reassurance from us. ‘You’re doing the right thing. Nobody loves you that does that to you.’ It took a lot of convincing, but time heals all wounds. And look at her now.”
Harrison eventually found solace in her sport. She won a junior championship, a senior championship and, in London, her first gold medal. She cried on the medal stand.
Injury threatened to derail her repeat attempt. She underwent reconstructive knee surgery in 2013. To prepare for the Olympics, she increased her training and fought in tournaments before she had fully recovered.
“We put her through hell,” Pedro said. “She went to places she didn’t want to go.”
The past four years drove Harrison on Thursday. As Harrison stood in the tunnel, ready to walk to the mat, Pedro jumped in front of her and demonstrated a hold sequence one last time. Harrison slapped her cheeks, and Pedro leaned close.
“Two-time Olympic champion,” he told her. “It’s Kayla time.”
“Two-time Olympic champion,” she repeated.
She paced to the mat, Pedro following behind.
“No one was going to take it away from me,” Harrison said. “The misery, the pain, I had to have done it for something. It had to have been worth it.”
When she climbed the podium, Harrison didn’t cry this time. As the national anthem began, she nodded and exhaled. She sang the lyrics, interrupted by her own bursts of laughter.
“All those moments when I wanted to quit, they kind of flashed in my mind,” Harrison said. “And I’m like, ‘I’m really glad I didn’t quit.’ ”
The medal hanging around her neck served as a testament to her legacy. She became only the third woman to win two gold medals, and she remains the only American judoka with one.
“She’s close to being the most celebrated woman in the history of judo,” USA Judo Director of Performance Eddie Liddie said. “It’s one of those debatable situations, but she’s right at the head table.”
Pedro said Harrison can enjoy being a superstar now. She might become an even bigger one. Ronda Rousey rose from judo to become one of the planet’s most famous athletes. Multiple mixed martial arts promotions have offered her contracts, Harrison said. Harrison maintained she had not reached any decisions.
“I’m sure they were watching,” Harrison said. “And if they weren’t, they missed out.”
Her future includes, in her words, trying to change the world. In their early time together, Pedro often told Harrison to be fearless. After the London Games, Harrison created the Fearless Foundation, a nonprofit designed to help survivors of sexual abuse through sports and education. She wants to do for other children what Jimmy Pedro did for her, back before she conquered her sport and flew through the air, into the rest of her life.
“I want young boys and girls all over the world to feel fearless and to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel and to know there is a shiny gold medal,” Harrison said.
“Maybe even two.”