Four years ago, Kayla Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in judo. Yesterday, Harrison became the first woman from any country to win multiple golds at half heavyweight, and her final match only looked difficult because she made the rest of them look so easy.
Harrison impressively won all four of her matches by ippon, a maximum score, bout-ending move—she won her first two by pin, and her final two by submission. The baddest-ass American judoka to ever live had a time with Audrey Tcheumeo in the final, but forced the Frenchwoman to tap out with seconds left:
The 26-year-old Harrison really won me over in her sit-down interview with NBC’s Liam McHugh last night, where she came across as grounded, thrilled, and eminently likable. (I know it’s a lot to ask anyone to watch a five-minute video, but you won’t be sorry.) She also spoke openly about her traumatic start in the sport—Harrison makes no secret that she was sexually abused by her first coach for three years, and suffered through depression and suicidal thoughts for much of her teenage years.
Harrison started the Fearless Foundation for survivors of abuse, and she says her goal is to make abuse a standard part of the standard seventh-grade health class curriculum—she believes all kids should be taught what grooming looks like. She told ESPN last week about one encounter following a speech:
AG: Have you seen the effect of your honesty and transparency first hand?
KH: One time after I shared my story, this girl walked up to me and handed me a note, and she said, “Just read it later.” I slipped it in my pocket and I said, “OK, I will. Thanks for coming, I hope you enjoyed it.” I let her hold my medal, I think. That night I was on the plane and I pulled out the note. It said: “Kayla, I was raped a month ago. And it’s really hard for me to get out of bed. But you give me hope that someday I will. Thank you.”
For now Harrison will promote her foundation and work as a motivational speaker, because full-time judoka just isn’t a viable career in this country. (After the London games, she trained as a firefighter.) If you want to make money in martial arts, there’s really only one avenue: and Harrison said yesterday that MMA isn’t for her.
“It’s just so different from judo,” Harrison said. “It’s such a different atmosphere from the Olympic stage. ... After a match in judo, you shake a person’s hand or you give them a hug. You bow to them to show respect. MMA isn’t like that. I don’t know if I’m cut out for a world where you get fights based on how pretty you are and how much you talk, not necessarily what you’ve done in the ring.”
That sounds a little different than what she told SB Nation before the Olympics, when she said she’s consider an MMA career and had already received several contract offers. She fights at a much heavier weight that former training partner and judo-to-MMA star Ronda Rousey (she fights at 78kg, or 172 pounds), so matchmaking could be a little difficult at first. But right now, Harrison is the best martial artist in the country, and as marketable as anyone, and UFC could certainly stand to expand its women’s divisions. Harrison would be a hell of a fighter to build around.