Kayla Harrison wins first U.S. Olympic judo gold medal after proving toughness long ago

LONDON – Kayla Harrison stood Thursday afternoon on the podium, holding the first judo gold medal the United States has ever won. A stereo played "The Star-Spangled Banner." Tears rolled down her face.

And so many images raced through her mind.

There she was as a frustrated teenager falling on the mat. There was her coach Jimmy Pedro, shouting, demanding she get up. There she

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

was crawling to her feet as Pedro kept yelling – pushing, pushing, always pushing, telling her she had to do more.

Harrison closed her eyes. In front of her an American flag rose toward the rafters, and she whispered those words Pedro always told her to say:

"This is my day."

"This is my purpose."

"Kayla Harrison, Olympic champion."

How many times had she repeated these things these past few days? For the last five years, they were the final words she said before falling asleep. Pedro thinks he must have said them 150 times on Thursday as they waited the interminable hour between each of her four matches on her way to the gold medal.

"Kayla Harrison is an Olympic champion."

"Kayla Harrison IS an Olympic champion."

[ Video: Kayla Harrison talks to Yahoo! Sports ]

She believed them. She made them her own. Even when she was in the quarterfinal fight with Hungary's Abigel Joo, a woman she had never beaten, she was sure she was going to win. For months, she and Pedro had been working on a plan to defeat Joo. She also knew she would beat Brazil's Mayra Aguiar. She and Pedro had a strategy for her too. And by the time she got to the final against Great Britain's Gemma Gibbons, she was convinced the gold was hers.

Her 2-0 defeat of Gibbons was so one-sided, it could have been far bigger.

Then when the match was over and the gold medal had been won, Pedro laughed. He is an intense and effusive man who wore the official Team USA blue blazer and white pants on Thursday because he thought it would be good luck. But he was also Harrison's savior, bringing her into his suburban Boston gym when she was 16 and all but destroyed by years of sexual abuse from her previous coach, Daniel Doyle.

She was so fragile back then, timid and afraid of everything. But she also had something else, something Pedro recognized, something he had been longing to see in his gym for as long as he has been dreaming of holding the elusive Olympic gold: desire. She hated to lose. And when she did, she stomped around. She threw things. She shouted at the walls. Pedro knew, even then, she could be the one.

He went everywhere trying to get funding to train her, searching for benefactors who would be willing to take a chance on an emotionally broken teenaged girl. He called all the proper agencies asking for travel and equipment funds. Some gave money. Then he called the New York Athletic Club and told her story to the judo chairman, Kevin Earls. After meeting her, Earls invested.

[ Photos: Kayla Harrison is making history ]

"To us, it was an investment in the human part of the story," Earls said. "Even if she went nowhere in judo, we had to help her."

Plus, it was hard to say no to Jimmy Pedro.

But there were problems.

"She's been through so many difficult situations," Pedro said.

The first trip Pedro and Harrison took was to Italy where Harrison passed out in the middle of a workout. She lay motionless on the side of the road as Pedro scurried around frantically trying to figure out what happened. The doctors said she had hypoglycemia. They said she needed a special diet, and so a nutritionist had to be found.

Harrison also had to rebuild the self-esteem broken from years of abuse. This took time, improving with each success she had in judo. Then, perhaps hardest of all, she had to face the trial of her first coach, the man who had inspired her and then almost ruined her life.

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It's only been in the past year that she has spoken publicly of the abuse, describing a court-room scene she dreaded and Doyle's subsequent 10-year prison sentence that came after he pleaded guilty to engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place. And while the abuse has become a part of her narrative, the sensational thing that makes for TV ratings, it is not Doyle's abuse itself but the way Harrison moved past it – strengthening herself – that is the story.

"I don't think [the abuse] defines her," Harrison's fiancé Aaron Handy said, standing in an ExCel Center hallway on Thursday. "You know what she is? She's a woman who works hard."

After the gold was won and Harrison jumped off the stage and hugged Pedro, she raced toward the corner of the stands where Handy stood holding an American flag. Steps away stood Russian President Vladimir Putin. She jumped past him into the stands and hugged Handy.

"How does it feel?" Handy shouted.

"I love you," she replied.

Then came the medal, the flag rising to the ceiling, the national anthem, and the tears – just as she saw it, just as Jimmy Pedro told her.

"I really feel this is my destiny in life," she later said, looking at her medal.

She smiled.

"I wanted it today," she said. "I never wanted something more in my life."

Now she has it.

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