Kayla Harrison’s coach said she shocked the world when earlier this month she became the first US judo athlete to win Olympic gold. But Harrison did not surprise herself.
This evening, the 22-year-old Marblehead resident said told a cheering crowd of more than 200 supporters that she knew she had it in her.
“I said before I left that when I won this gold medal I was going to win it for all of you, and that’s what I did,” said Harrison, proudly wearing her new hardware at the Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge in Boston.
She built that self-confidence after fighting off thoughts of quitting the sport, and even contemplated suicide.
For three years, beginning at age 13, Harrison was sexually abused by a coach, Daniel Doyle, who is now serving a 10-year federal prison sentence.
When she was 16, the Ohio native moved to Massachusetts, training in Wakefield under her Olympic coach, a two-time bronze medalist himself, Jimmy Pedro along with his father, Jim Pedro, Sr.
For the first two years she trained locally, Harrison lived with Marblehead resident Patrick O’Sullivan and his family.
“She’s such a wonderful person, and an icon for my kids,” O’Sullivan said, waiting anxiously before Harrison arrived at her welcome-home party.
Harrison said she hopes her success will help the sport of judo gain more attention in the US.
“That’s my goal now: to get my sport out there, to make people aware that it’s one of the best sports in the world,” she said. “Whether you’re the six-year-old kid who wants to learn some confidence or you’re the 60-year-old woman who wants to learn self defense. It really has something to offer for everyone at all ages.”
In a room filled with friends and family, Harrison was also mobbed by cameras, reporters and fans. She signed autographs and posed for photos.
Since returning home one week ago, she said she has joked about how instead of waking up in the early morning hours to “sweat, work and cry” during training, “now I wake up at 5 a.m. to get hair and makeup done,” for media and public appearances.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive and so much fun,” she said.
“I don’t know that it’s ever going to sink in,” Harrison added. “You hope that one day your dreams are going to come true. But, to be the first Olympic champion it’s huge. I don’t think I realize how huge it is.”
The party also welcomed home Travis Stevens, a 26-year-old Woburn resident who trained alongside Harrison in Wakefield before journeying to London to represent the US judo team in the Olympics. The Tacoma, Washington-native narrowly lost a controversially-judged semifinal match and then lost a close match for the bronze.
“Everyone else competed to their expectations,” he said. “I feel like I let people down.”
Moments before Harrison arrived and the celebration began, Stevens said he appreciated his supporters and would do his best to try to enjoy himself.
“It’s going to be hard to get through,” he said. “It’s a reminder of how I didn’t succeed.”
Harrison hopes to eventually become a firefighter, like O’Sullivan and her fiancé, Aaron Handy. She said she is also looking forward to at some point starting to plan a wedding with Handy.
But, for now, Harrison said she is enjoying the moment.
“There’s no feeling like this in the world, and I’m probably going to want to feel it again in 2016,” she said.