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Judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison still has a mission

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Walter Hawkes
Kayla Harrison

With a breezy authenticity, judo Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison's affability gives the impression that life has been free of tribulations that might otherwise have left her jaded.

It's a far cry from reality.

Hers is a story that began when she was 6, quickly rising through the ranks to become one of the top-rated junior judo athletes in the United States, snagging multiple national titles while still a teenager.

Almost unimaginably, her successes were achieved while enduring years of sexual abuse at the hands of her coach. After it was revealed, depression soon settled in. Getting out of bed became unbearable; thoughts of suicide were entertained. Not surprisingly, working at judo was out of the question.

But friends, family, teammates and new coach Jimmy Pedro rallied around her, encouraging her to get up, get on the mat and fight through the pain. And through sheer determination and tenacity, that's exactly what she did. Step by step, she fought until she became the first American to bring home the gold in the sport of judo. These days, she's a “woman on a mission,” telling her story in the hopes of inspiring — and empowering — those around her.

Kayla will be the guest speaker at the Family Resources Awards Dinner on April 17. Details: www.familyresourcesofpa.org/benefit

Question: What's going through your mind when you're on the mat and there's an Olympic medal on the line?

Answer: Not much! I think that for me, that day in London, I was so focused and so zoned in, there wasn't a thought in my head other than “Kayla Harrison: An Olympic Champion.” It was all about taking it one breath at a time, taking one step at a time, making one hold at a time and doing what I had trained my whole life to do.

Q: Do you remember what you were thinking when you felt that gold medal in your hands?

A: So many, I had so many thoughts! That's when the thoughts started coming! So much was going through my head. All the people that had been with me through the journey, all of their faces flashed through my head because without them I couldn't have done it. It's been an amazing moment for me, and I'll never forget it. I say it all the time, but to go and represent the United States is a huge honor. To go and win a gold medal is a dream come true. To win the first gold medal for your country is amazing. I mean, I still can't even wrap my brain around it.

Q: Is it overwhelming to know you're a source of such inspiration for people?

A: It's overwhelming, heartwarming. I didn't do any of this alone. I've had so much support — my teammates, my coaches, my family. I can't tell you how many times they've picked me off the mat, gotten me out of bed. The fact that people find my journey inspiring is also a huge tribute to them and everything they've helped me do. I consider it a huge responsibility because I have young boys and girls and judo players and non-judo players who watch my every move now. And it is a responsibility, and there is a certain pressure to it and it's a good pressure. I've been given the opportunity to do some good in the world, and I feel like it would be a crime if I didn't.

Q: You've said that after you revealed you were being sexually abused by your former coach, you began to hate judo, becoming so depressed that you considered suicide. What served as the turning point for you to fight through that enormous pain?

A: Honestly, there's not one moment where you can define and look at it and say, “That's the moment where I knew I was going to be OK.” It's every day. My teammates were huge — I was to the point where I wouldn't get out of bed or brush my teeth. And one day, I did get out of bed and brush my teeth, and the next week, I got out of bed and made myself breakfast, and the next week, I didn't cry for a whole session. I was able to put my life back together piece by piece with the help from a lot of people. The biggest thing I can tell people facing obstacles is that it's that little voice inside of you telling you to keep going. It's just taking one day at a time and taking it step by step.

Q: Would you say that judo saved your life?

A: Absolutely. I mean, if I didn't have something to get me out of bed every morning, who knows where I would be. It changed my life and the course of my life. But at the end of the day, I don't regret any decisions my family made, and I would do it all over again. I'm very happy with my life, and I'm at peace with what happened. And now I'm a woman on a mission. And I'm going to make sure (that kind of abuse) never happens to anyone else again. <

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