RIO DE JANEIRO — She is a commodity now, armed with star power and charisma, toughness and talent. She has survived sexual abuse and devastating injuries, bouts of depression and wavering motivation.
But everything that was possible for Kayla Harrisonin judo has now been fulfilled; that much was assured Thursday night when she won her second gold medal and made American history. Now it’s time to become a star.
“I’m happy, I’m retiring,” she said moments after defeating No. 2-ranked Audrey Tcheumeo of France in the gold medal round of the 78-kilogram weight class. “Two-time Olympic champion. That’s it.”
Of course, retirement for Harrison only means from judo, the sport to which she has devoted the first 26 years of her life. What almost certainly awaits her is a lucrative career in mixed-martial arts following in the footsteps of her former sparring partnerRonda Rousey, who didn’t achieve a fraction of Harrison’s success in judo but has become an international icon.
Harrison, it would seem, has similar potential. And though she didn’t want to talk about her future in specific terms, she might have been hinting something when asked whether she has been offered a contract by the UFC.
“I’m sure they were watching,” Harrison said. “If they weren’t, they missed out.”
What anyone who didn’t watch Harrison here missed was how she annihilated the field, winning all four matches by ippon, which is essentially the judo version of a knockout. Three of her bouts lasted fewer than two minutes, and she finished the championship by getting Tcheumeo in an armlock, flipping her over and forcing her to tap out with six seconds left.
“She didn’t come into these Games as a reigning Olympic champion, she came in as somebody who never did it before,” said national team coach Jimmy Pedro, the only other American judoku to win two Olympic medals (both bronze). “We put her through hell (in training). She went to places she didn’t want to go. She went to camps, fought in competitions, fought injured. We told her if you can win these events not at your best and not wanting to be there, wait until the Olympics come because they’re going to feel a different Kayla.
“She peaked for this event.”
It wasn’t easy.
Harrison admitted these were a long four years since her breakthrough in London, filled with various injuries and moments where she didn’t want to go globetrotting and take on the workload of someone with far fewer accomplishments. She has also spent a lot of time launching her Fearless Foundation to raise awareness of sexual abuse, which she suffered as a teenager at the hands of her former coach.
But as marketable as Harrison was already, two gold medals sounds a lot better than one when it comes time to cash in.
“There were more than a lot of moments I didn’t want to get up for practice, didn’t want to do more lineups, didn’t want to get the crap kicked out of me,” she said. “But with (Pedro), it’s all in or nothing. And they pushed me to the point where when I showed up today I knew that I had worked harder than everyone. No one was going to take it away from me. The misery and the pain, I had to have done it for something. It had to be worth it.”
It was, finally, when the match ended and she slapped the mat in celebration. Then, she embraced her coach, who marveled that the U.S. — which devotes only a fraction of resources to judo compared to the traditional powerhouses like Russia — has produced such a champion.
“I think no matter what my judo legacy is fulfilled and I’m happy and happy with my career,” she said. “Now it’s time to go and continue to have a legacy off the mat and try to change the world.”