At the 2012 Olympics in London, Kayla Harrison became the first American to win a gold medal in judo. Four years later, she defended her title at the Rio Games. That’s the last time she competed in judo. Since then, Harrison has been training for a shift to MMA and working on a book about child sexual abuse, based on her own experiences.
Harrison signed with the Professional Fighters League, which was then known as the World Series of Fighting, back in 2016. She worked as a commentator while getting acclimated to mixed martial arts and considering the next stage of her athletic career, and eventually decided to follow her former judo training partner, Ronda Rousey, into the octagon. Harrison will make her MMA debut on June 21, in Chicago.
Before that, though, she’s got a book to promote. Fighting Back: What an Olympic Champion’s Story Can Teach Us about Recognizing and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse—and Helping Kids Recover is coauthored with two Harvard Medical School faculty who have worked with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It pairs their clinical analysis aimed at parents and caregivers with Harrison’s first-hand account of the years during which she was being sexually abused by her judo coach, Daniel Doyle. The book uses contemporaneous diary entries and her teenage victim statement to tell a story that is both horrific and horribly familiar.
Harrison first spoke publicly about the abuse to USA Today in 2011, inspired by the indictment of Jerry Sandusky. “Once I started speaking out about it,” Harrison tells me, “I really didn’t stop.” More recently, she’s spoken about the depression that followed her final Olympics.
I talked to Harrison on the phone last week about changing careers after being so successful at such a young age and what it was like to revisit her childhood trauma. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Talk me through what the time immediately after the Olympics is like for someone who is in a pretty Olympic-specific sport. Let’s start with the London Olympics. What are you thinking for your career right after you win the gold medal?
It’s funny because before the London Olympics, every time I got interviewed I said, “If I win, I’m going to be done.” And then I won and I was only 22 years old, and at the time, women’s MMA wasn’t really that big and I wasn’t really that interested in it. And I was engaged, but it kind of wasn’t really going well. And he kind of wanted me to move home to Ohio and settle down. And I felt like, no way, I’m too young. I wasn’t sure that I was done with judo. And I felt like a lot of people maybe thought that it was a fluke that I had won. And I hate, I hate doubters and I hate naysayers. I mean, I took time off and I was going to all these parties and speaking all over the country and doing all kinds of events with charities, and you get to go on the media tour and see all your friends. It was great. We had a hometown parade and all that stuff.
And then I started training again in January of 2013. But before the London Olympics, I had a really bad knee injury while I was training, five months before the Olympics. And we thought my ACL was torn, so the Olympic physical therapist rehabbed it and when I went to the Olympics and I won, we thought it was going to be fine but when I started training again my knee would always hurt. And I just thought it was scar tissue and “Oh, this is what people with knee injuries feel like.” And then in May of 2013, I went to get out of bed and my knee completely gave out. I saw this orthopedic surgeon and he did a bunch of tests, looked at my old MRIs, did new MRIs, and I had actually been misdiagnosed. My ACL was never torn but knee had been subluxing and dislocating for over a year. So I had to have complete reconstructive surgery on my knee in June of 2013. So that really put the fire back inside of me. I had never had a super major surgery so I thought, “Oh, it’ll be six weeks and I’ll be back on the mat.” No, I was on bed rest and in a straight-leg brace for six weeks. I was on pain pills for six weeks straight.
And why did that make you want to do it all again?
Because I had never gone that long without judo since I was six years old. I had never been off the mat for so long. And I had never felt so uncomfortable. I had never felt so unlike myself. I got depressed, I guess. I was taking classes and I was going to physical therapy. And I didn’t go to the dojo for a long time and I kind of started to branch out. I lived in the Back Bay. I had this fancy apartment on Newbury Street and was taking classes at Harvard extension, living my own life and doing it up. But I just didn’t feel whole. And I missed judo. For the first time since I had been a kid, I missed it.
And so I rehabbed really hard and six months later, I was back on the mat. Fought my first competition back in June of 2014 and I ended up winning it. And I won the tournament. I remember just being so terrified—like, what if I’m never the same athlete again? What if my best days are behind me? What if Kayla Harrison is a has-been already at 23? I’ve always been a “failure is my fuel” type of person. The need to challenge myself has always been really strong. So having reconstructive knee surgery and not being able to walk for six weeks challenged me.
Before the Rio Olympics, did you start thinking about what it was going to be like afterwards?
No, see that’s the thing is like, even in London, I won the Olympics and it was almost like, “Wait what? What now?” You are so focused on the goal. You’re so focused on that one day. For me it was August 2 and August 11. Like those are the only two days that existed in my mind. And then afterwards it’s like this blank space, this blank page. I think I knew, deep down, that after London I was going to keep competing. But after Rio, it was really scary.
So when did you start to realize that you may be done with judo?
Maybe December of 2015.
So before you competed.
Oh yeah, I knew I was done. I was getting to that point. It also just got to the point where I had won everything there was to win, twice, and I was fighting the same people, going to the same countries, doing the same thing. In judo, I’m sort of known as being a master of the basics, so everything I do, I learned in the first six months of training. So I’ve been perfecting the same thing for the past 20 years. Do the same thing over and over, twice a day, for 20 years, and you’re going to get tired of it.
Did you feel ready to move on?
Oh yeah. Even to the point where right before the Olympics I fought a tournament in Hungary, and also there was the pressure of being the defending champ and knowing that my career was coming to an end, but I pretty much had a mini meltdown right before the Olympics where I was crying and fighting with my coaches, Jimmy [Pedro] and Big Jim [Pedro], and telling them I didn’t want to fight. I was really really burnt out.
Did you still enjoy the Olympics?
Yeah, I did. I think... it was bittersweet. On one hand, I don’t ever want to talk shit about the Olympics, since it was my dream since I was a little girl to be an Olympic champion, so I never want to tarnish that. But at the end of the day, what blows my mind about it is I literally trained my whole life, sacrificed my family, my friends, relationships, money, and in reality, you go to stay in a room that’s as big as a prison cell and eat mediocre food. I don’t know. Somedays I think, “What the hell was I thinking? I must be insane.” But it’s not just that moment. It’s all the moments that lead up to it. It’s that journey. And I got to travel the world with my best friends, and do what I love, and compete at the highest level in my sport. And see so many amazing places and do so many amazing things. I enjoyed the journey, for sure. But I was definitely done.
Did winning feel the same both times?
Hmmm, no. Well. I don’t know. Like the first time I won it was like, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. We did it, we did it, we did it. And then the second time, it was more like, see I told you. Going into London, I was ranked No. 4. I had won the Worlds but I was still very young, there were a lot more experienced, probably better technical fighters than me. And then by 2016, I was No. 1 in the world. I had been very dominant for a very long time, and it was sort of just a matter of, if the best Kayla showed up that day, I was going to be unstoppable. And I didn’t even get a point scored on me. And I was the only Olympic champion to not have a point scored [against] and to win all of my matches by ippon, which means by knockout basically. So I won in the most dominant way possible. Which I was very happy about.
And so then after the Olympics, the Rio Olympics, was that tough when you knew you were done?
Oh my god, it was so tough. I mean it’s the equivalent to being an older person and retiring. Except you’re so young and so you still have to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. Especially for Olympians or Type-A personalities. I was so used to having a reason to wake up every day. I was so used to having this goal, and being so laser focused. I was just obsessed. I was obsessed with being an Olympic champion and that lifestyle. I didn’t really know who I was without it. I couldn’t sleep the night that I won. I was there with my boyfriend at the time, and went to the hotel. You go through drug testing and then you go to a press conference with all the other medalists, and get in a little black car and NBC basically owns you. And they put you up, you stay in a really nice hotel right on the beach. Because the village is obviously not right on the beach, it’s like an hour away. I had like racing thoughts, and I just couldn’t sleep, extremely anxious. And my boyfriend at the time was like, “Kayla, it’s okay, you should enjoy this. It’s been like five hours.” And I’m like, what am I going to do next? Oh my god. I regret it a little bit. I wish that I had just been able to turn off my mind and be in the present moment and really enjoy that feeling. Because there’s just no greater high than being the best in the world at what you do. There’s nothing that feels better but I was so anxious because I knew it was over that I didn’t know how to enjoy it.
Did you compete again in judo at all after the Olympics?
No, I haven’t fought at all since August 11, 2016.
How does that feel?
It’s crazy, I hate it. Not that I necessarily want to fight in judo. Just like, I’m a very naturally competitive person and I like testing my skills and pushing myself and having a goal. So even when I decided that I was going to do MMA, I knew I was going to take my time, I knew I was going to slowly ease my way into it. But it’s been like two years since I’ve been on a stage, under the spotlight. Even when I had knee surgery, I only was out for a year, so this feels like really unnatural to me. And going to training every day is great and all, and obviously everything is so different in MMA so I have a lot to learn, but like, I feel better when I have the pressure of competition. I feel better when it’s like, No, this is the date—this is it, this is when I’m going to fight. And having that in the back of my head pushes me more.
Was MMA on your radar before you started doing it? Do you watch MMA?
Yeah, of course. And Ronda [Rousey] is my old teammate and I have a lot of judo buddies that went into the MMA world after their judo careers. And I think it’s like the fastest growing women’s sport in the country. Plus everyone, no offense to you media folks, but every two seconds it was like “What are you going to do? Are you going to do MMA?” So, I had no choice but to pay attention to it. And I wasn’t sure. I think I knew in the back of my mind, like subconsciously, that I wanted to do it. But it’s so different. And a lot of people close to me really didn’t want me to do it.
Just like my family was very concerned. My mom, my grandma, everyone’s nurses, so they were very concerned about injuries, concussions. And I’ve already had a couple of concussions with judo and obviously I’ve already put my body through the mill and had a major reconstructive surgery. I feel like they all just wanted me to relax, take it easy and enjoy my life a little bit. And the thing with my coaches, Jimmy and Big Jim, were like, “Kayla, you’ve done enough. You’ve accomplished everything. You’re one of the greatest judo players of all time. This is enough.” And Big Jim, especially, he wanted me to, like, he’s very old school, so he’s like, “You’re 28 years old, you need to get married and have kids and settle down. Otherwise you’re going to end up a nun.” He thinks that I put my life on hold long enough for athletics. But to me, it’s not like I’m putting my life on hold. I’m just living my life.
So how did you convince them?
Well my family has always been supportive so they said, “Whatever you want to do, we’re going to support.” Big Jim was like, “We’ll see how dedicated you are.” First I started commentating. And I started training right away. And Big Jim’s whole thing was, “I’ll know you’re serious if you start training and you lose weight.” Because women’s weight classes are much smaller in MMA than they are in judo, so I was gonna have to lose quite a bit of weight if I even wanted to compete in MMA.
So all last year, I trained and trained and trained and by the summer I had lost quite a bit of weight and gotten down to striking distance to make weight for an MMA fight. And I was still going to judo once or twice a week to stay sharp on judo and help the young, up-and-coming athletes. And I said to Big Jim, “Hey, a deal’s a deal. I want you to start coming to my practices. I want you to be my main guy, because I trust you more than I trust anyone in the world. And you’ll never bullshit me.” So he started coming to sparring and then we started taking trips and all of a sudden we’re right back in it and talking strategy and training. He’s all in now.
Was it hard to start doing something that you weren’t the best at?
Yeah. Talk about a piece of humble pie. It’s exciting in the sense that I feel like I’m such a diamond in the rough because I have so much to learn and so much ground to cover, but I still feel like I’m a diamond. I’m still Olympic champion. I’m still this extremely motivated, dedicated, fast-learning athlete. But it sucks. It sucks being a white belt all over again. When you’ve been the best at what you do in the world for over 10 years and then all of a sudden, you have this little 120-pound thing jabbing the shit out of you and you can’t move, you’re like “Why do I suck so bad?”
What’s been physically the hardest? What’s been difficult to learn?
Well, obviously striking is not natural to me. So the striking aspect of MMA has been really a big focus of mine. It’s retraining your brain. In judo, my style was always to just instill my will, so I always just marched straight forward, got my grip and threw them. And in MMA, if you just walk straight forward, you’re going to eat a lot of punches, you’re going to eat a lot of kicks. You really put yourself in a very dangerous position cause striking is all about angles. Even a little head movement. People don’t think about that when you’re not a fighter, you’re just a fan of it. Head movement is something that, it takes a long time to develop and make natural. Like, I spend hours just working on head movement because I always just stood still! I never had to worry about moving my head because someone is going to try to punch it or kick it. Or keeping your hands up to protect your head, that’s not something I ever had to worry about. Little things like that are basic but are very very important to being successful.
What about the culture. I mean, I don’t know much about the culture of judo...
It’s okay, no one does.
But MMA has such a distinct...culture.
Oh I know, it’s a big pet peeve of mine. Even the other day, I went on this MMA show and I didn’t realize it at the time but it’s a very very very big MMA show and a lot of people were watching and within the first 10 minutes people were tweeting at me talking shit, like “She’s a man!” Or all these nasty, horrible things that I would never say to my worst enemy. And don’t get me wrong, there were lots of people who were like, “Wow, she’s so inspiring, she’s going to be a killer.” And obviously it goes both ways.
But for me, the culture of MMA is still very… I don’t know. It’s entertainment, right? It’s about selling fights. They’ve gotten to this point where people honestly think, like—I think fans think that they can say whatever they want. I think fighters think that they can say whatever they want. People put on these personas in order to sell fights and make more money. Like, don’t get me wrong, I get it. You want to put food on your table, you want to take care of your family, you’ll talk shit about anybody. But for me, coming from a judo background, it’s mixed martial arts and any martial art you ever do, the number one principal is founded on respect and discipline and integrity and perseverance and indomitable spirit. All those things are what make martial artists special. And what makes a martial art different from any other sport. So it’s weird to me that we’ve sort of allowed it, as martial artists, to get to this point. It doesn’t make sense.
Is that culture intimidating?
Well, I like to rib people. Like this was my introduction to MMA: I walked on the mat. They said, “Hi, this is Kayla Harrison, everyone, she’s a gold medalist in judo at the Olympics.” And I didn’t mean to but without even thinking I said, “Actually, it’s two-time.” And they were all like, “Ohhh! Excuse us! Two-time Olympic champion!” And then my nickname for a while was “Two-Time” and I was like, “That doesn’t really sound right…” So my shit-talking is all sort of lighthearted. I never mean it in a negative or disrespectful way. I’m not intimidated and I’m not afraid to stand up for myself, but I really hope that I don’t lose myself, I hope I don’t stray from who I am and what I truly believe in as a person. I hope that I don’t lose myself in the culture of it.
Changing topics here: what has the process been working on this book? How did you decide to put such a personal story out in a book?
Right before the London Olympics I started speaking publicly about my story, it was right after the Jerry Sandusky scandal happened and I remember I got into a fight with my friend. She posted something about Joe Paterno losing his job and how it was unfair and all of these kids at Penn State were rioting and flipping over cars because a football coach had lost his job and no one was rioting about the countless victims whose lives had been changed forever and I was just like, why is that?
And I realize it’s because no one understands child sexual abuse, it didn’t have a face at the time. Everyone thought it happened to someone else but never to them. Once I started speaking out about it, I really didn’t stop. After the Olympics, so many athletes phone[s] ring off the hook with endorsement deals and media inquiries and all this stuff. And my phone was ringing off the hook with just pleas and cries and like, “Will you come to my daughter’s school?” and “My daughter went through something similar, is there any advice you can give me?” “We’re a nonprofit in Cook County, and we’d love for you to come share your story.” I’m talking like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails like that.
That must be overwhelming.
It’s so overwhelming! I’m only one person. And believe me, I said yes to as many of them as I could. I was traveling nonstop during that time between London and Rio. It got to the point where Big Jim and Jimmy were like, “Kayla, you gotta start saying no.”
But I also reached out to my friend Cynthia Kaplan, who I met at McLean Hospital, through Blaise Aguirre, my two coauthors, and I reached out and I said to her, “What do you think about writing a book about sexual abuse?” And she was so excited. Like she started working on it that night. And it was just something where she was at the point in her career where she really wanted to leave behind a legacy and something like this had never been done, where it was from a victim’s point of view but with educational, psychological material included. So we started working on it and I just got overwhelmed. I was not ready. I didn’t realize how much it was going to take out of me to try to write about that stuff. So we got started, and then we kind of sputtered off.
And then I told Cynthia, “Listen, I have to focus, I have to train.” But when I had my knee surgery and was taking classes, one of the classes I took was called Intro To Memoir, and so I basically forced myself to write by taking that class, because I had assignments due every week. So every single week I would write about my experiences. And it was always something that bothered me, that I had let it go and hadn’t finished it. And I knew that I wanted to write an educational book, I knew that I wanted to reach as many people as possible without having to speak to 500 people at a time.
So, I won the Olympics in Rio and that night I went back to the hotel and I was checking all my emails and I just kept thinking about Cynthia, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And finally I got home from Rio and buried in my emails was a congratulations email from her and I just wrote her back and said, “Cynthia, I’m so glad that you emailed me, I’ve been thinking about you pretty much nonstop since I won. I know that we had a rough start to the book, but I’m really ready now and I just retired, officially so I have a lot of time on my hands, do you want to write that book?” And she, of course, got back to me right away, she’s a trooper and she’s amazing. And we brought Blaise on board.
It was really hard, I’m not going to lie. Because it’s educational, we wanted to give as much of an insight into certain aspects of sexual abuse as possible. Like, for instance, I had to write like a victim impact statement and that’s included in the book. And I actually kept journals from the time I was 10 years old or 11 years old and we put the journal entries in the book. That part of it was really hard for me. Not that I’ve buried it, but you forget. Especially when life is so good and you’ve reached all your dreams and become what you feel like is a strong confident person, and [then] to read your 16-year-old self begging for God to end your life. It was a hard time for me to go through all of that. But it also was very therapeutic. What really made me finish the book, ’cause there were a lot of times I didn’t think I was going to finish it, was the thought of another 16-year-old writing those words and maybe they’ll pick up this book and read it and maybe they’ll be able to get help. Maybe it’ll change their lives.
Did you feel like you learned things about your own situation along the way?
Oh yeah, I felt like I knew so much about sexual abuse and then I realized I knew nothing.
What’s something specific that was a new perspective on the situation?
There was a point where I was writing journal entries and pretending that Daniel and I were just friends and it was so crazy that people thought that anything else could be going on. And learning about the double self and the doublethink process that kids sometimes use because they can’t mentally deal. Like they don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong because an adult is taking advantage of the situation. Things like that. I didn’t understand that as a kid, and reading about it, learning about it when I got older, learning about the grooming process was just mind blowing to me.
It must be validating in a sense to describe your experience to an expert and be told that’s how these things tend to happen.
Yeah. Like I just went and saw this movie called The Tale, it’s going to be an HBO special and it’s about sexual abuse, and it was very jarring to me, in the book I was very jarred sometimes, I always remember thinking Oh I’m 13, I know what I’m doing or Oh, I’m 16, I know what I’m doing. But actually, there is scientific evidence that the brain is not developed at those ages. Like, literally, a child’s brain is different from an adult’s brain at those times, to the point where if a 17-year-old commits a murder, you can’t charge them to a life sentence with no opportunity for parole. And the reason that is the way it is, there was a Supreme Court case, is because their brain is still not developed at 17, the same way that a 28-year-old’s is.
So for me, just learning that stuff, I’m like, Oh my god, my brain wasn’t even developed. I think we all think we’re so much older and more mature than we really are. It was so jarring for me to look at pictures of myself at 12 or 13. Like, oh my god, I look like a little boy.