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Posted: August 02, 2012

Middletown's Kayla Harrison wins gold at London Olympics


By Mark Maloney

Contributing Writer


Now and forever, America’s first Olympic gold medalist in judo will be Kayla Harrison, the pride of Middletown.

Harrison, competing at 78 kilograms (172 pounds), completed a 4-0 run through the London Summer Games by disappointing the ExCel Arena home crowd Thursday with a victory over Great Britain’s Gemma Gibbons.

As “Star Spangled Banner” played, Harrison couldn’t avoid tears on the podium, a gold medal draped from her neck.

“I just reflected back on my life and everything that it’s taken to get here and everything that I’ve gone through,” she explained. “Everyone in my family has sacrificed. My coaches, my teammates — it’s not every four years, it’s every day. And I’m so honored to be America’s first gold medalist and happy to realize my dream.”

Everything that it’s taken includes surviving three years of sexual abuse from her coach as a child and overcoming thoughts of suicide.

She testified against the coach, Daniel Doyle, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Her move to go public started when she told a fellow judo athlete, Aaron Handy, who in turn told Kayla’s mother.

At 22, Harrison now is engaged to Handy.

“We haven’t picked a date yet. Who knows?” Harrison said moments after stepping off the awards podium. With a laugh, she added: “I’d get married right now.”

She said she hopes to use her story — the good and the bad — to help others.

“I can’t wait to get started helping others, and helping others realize their dream, and realize that there’s more to life than what they are living in right there. I can’t wait,” she said. “I want to help kids realize their Olympic dreams and I want to help kids overcome being victims.”

On the mat Thursday, Harrison was no victim.

She was focused, seemingly oblivious to the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was on hand to see Tagir Khaibulaev win the men’s 100-kilo gold.

“I wanted to brawl,” she said of her strategy versus Gibbons, who had never medaled in a European Championships let alone a World Championship. “I wanted a relentless pursuit of my opponent. I wanted to go out there and I wanted to dominate the entire fight. And I wanted the crowd to know and I wanted myself to know that I was Olympic champion today.

“Gemma showed up. She fought with a lot of heart. The crowd helped her a ton. It’s an amazing crowd here tonight, and she is a fierce, fierce competitor. … Today was just my day.”

It was also U.S. Judo’s day, according to Jimmy Pedro, the Team USA coach as well as Harrison’s personal coach at his Wakefield, Mass., dojo.

“U.S. Judo’s never been televised our country, really,” Pedro said, “With Kayla’s story, the American media has really followed her, they’ve televised this live at home. They’re going to eat her up from here until forever. She’s going to enjoy this ride, trust me.

“She’s a sweetheart. Good, good person. Cares about other people. Always willing to give back. I say that she has an attitude of gratitude, and there’s nobody more deserving that her to climb the top of the podium today. Because she never skips a practice, she never skips a run, a lift. She’s spot-on as an athlete.”

“Spot on” is not exactly judo talk, as all the terminology is in Japanese.

In simplistic terms, an ippon — judo’s equivalent of a knockout in boxing — is worth a point. A waza-ari is worth a half-point and a yuko equates to a quarter-point.

Harrison scored a pair of yukos against Gibbons, the first coming 59 seconds into the five-minute event.

The second yuko came with 1:06 left.

No American woman had ever finished better than third in an Olympic competition — Ronda Rousey at 70 kilos in 2008 and Marti Malloy at 57 kilos earlier in these Games.

Eddie Liddie, who as director of high performance oversees the national judo program, won a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

He said that seeing Harrison’s performance “made my second dream come true.”

“That elusive gold. We’ve been chasing it and chasing it. I had my own personal moment with tears,” Liddie said. “Kayla is the individual that you can cheer for at any time. She’s a class act.”

The best finish by an American at 78 kilos had been a ninth place by Amy Tong in 2000.

Ranked No. 2 in the world, Harrison improved her 2012 record to 23-2.

Her resume’ includes Grand Slam event victories at Prague and Rio de Janeiro this year and a Pan American Games gold in 2011.

She won the 2010 World Championships, but slipped to bronze in 2011. That only fueled her motivation for London.

“I hope that America loves me and loves my story,” Harrison said. “And hopefully a little girl or little boy sees this and they say ‘wow, mom, I want to do that.’ And hopefully we have 10 Olympic champions next time.

“Never give up on your dreams,” Harrison added. “If I can do it, anybody can do it. A lot of things have happened and now my life is a dream. I’m living my dream right now. I was down in the quarters early in the match and I didn’t give up. And if you don’t give up, look what happens — an Olympic champion.”

Harrison started her gold-medal run with a first-minute ippon over Russia’s Vera Moskalyuk.

The test got tougher in the quarterfinals.

Abigel Joo of Hungary scored a waza-ari 1:15 into contest.

Halfway through, Joo suffered an ankle injury and came up with a severe limp.

Harrison smelled blood in the water. Eleven seconds later, she scored a yuko to cut her deficit in half.

“Joo is a tough match for me. She’s a tall lefty. That’s something that I struggle with,” Harrison said. “And she caught me early. Honestly, I didn’t even think about it. It was sort of just ‘OK, pick up the pieces, let’s go. Push, push, push. I knew that I was in better shape than her and I knew that if I went at my pace, she wasn’t going to be able to hang on, and it was just a matter of time.”

With 1:50 left, Harrison threw Joo to the mat for an ippon.

Harrison’s semifinal victory came against Maya Aguiar of Brazil, the No. 1 ranked judoka in the world.

The bout was scoreless until Harrison scored with 1:03 left.

She ended it with 14 seconds on the clock.

“That’s the toughest match for us. We were 5-and-4, now we’re 6-and-4 against that girl,” Pedro said. “She’s the No. 1 girl in the world and Kayla took her apart. I mean, she physically looked so strong today. We’ve got everything going in the right direction. I’m fully confident Kayla’s coming home with a gold today.”

She did — now and forever, America’s first.

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