'No one will break me': The Conversation with judo champion Kayla Harrison

The first United States Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison discusses how she overcame sexual abuse to rise to the top of her sport.

Kayla Harrison made history at the 2012 Olympics when she became the first American to bring home gold in judo. As the Rio Games approach, she paused from her intense training to talk about her mindset, the pressure of repeating gold, her journey from sexual abuse survivor to advocate, as well as her plans after judo.

Allison Glock: Rio is right around the corner. How are you feeling?

Kayla Harrison: I'm a little tired. But honestly, I wish it were tomorrow. I'm ready to go. This morning we were doing video review. I know everyone I'm going to fight. I know what size they are. Their predominant grip. Their favorite throw.

AG: Are your opponents doing the same with you?

KH: They should be. [Laughs] It's a fight, anything can happen. But everybody is beatable.

AG: You're 26 now, how is your Olympic training different this time around?

KH: There is more pressure. I have a huge target on my back. And it's harder to stay motivated. Five months before the 2012 London Olympics my knee gave out. Mentally, I was destroyed. I was terrified that I was going to be another "could have been," another sad story. It took me about three days to really make up my mind, like, "No! Screw that!" I'm going to be the comeback story. I'm going to be the biggest, greatest, most epic comeback of all time.

AG: You won gold while injured.

KH: I fought in the Olympics with a dislocated knee. I'd basically created a pothole, there was no cartilage left. After London, the doctors had to do what's called a TTO [tibial tubercle osteotomy] -- they had to break my tibia, move it over, realign my kneecap, take a piece of my hamstring, fix the ligament, remove all the pieces of cartilage floating around, poke holes in my kneecap to create blood flow. It's not easy to even run again after that kind of surgery. But, honestly, I believe everything happens for a reason because I was sitting pretty, Olympic champion, the first ever. I didn't have that grit anymore. And then boom! The surgery and rehab gave me that passion back. That fire. It gave me something to overcome.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Kayla Harrison celebrates after defeating Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain for the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

AG: How much of judo is mental versus physical?

KH: At the highest level, mental is the biggest part. Staying calm, cool and collected is the difference between a win or a loss. Every night I visualize myself winning the Olympics, standing on top of the podium, hearing the national anthem, watching the American flag go up. I have a mantra I say before I fight: "One match at a time, one minute at a time, one grip at a time, one exchange at a time, one breath at a time." I repeat it over and over again to keep myself in the now.

AG: Does it work?

When I compete, my adrenaline goes crazy. Basically, I'm like a super cave woman. If I had to fight a saber-toothed tiger, I would beat the crap out of that tiger.
Kayla Harrison

KH: When your goal for the past four years is one single day, it is very hard to stay in centered in the moment. [Laughs] When I compete, my adrenaline goes crazy. Basically, I'm like a super cave woman. If I had to fight a saber-toothed tiger, I would beat the crap out of that tiger. I get aaaamped.

AG: Even after 20 years of competition?

KH: In 20 years it hasn't changed.

AG: You started judo as a young girl at the urging of your mother.

KH: She thought it would be good for me. By the age of 8, judo was the only thing I wanted to do. It became my whole life. Judo was what my mother took away for punishment. By age 12, I was going every single day. By 13, I was waking up in the morning to run before school and then lifting weights after school and going to judo after that. I remember the first time I won a tournament, getting to stand on top of the podium, that feeling of accomplishment. I knew I wanted to be the best in the world at something, and it just so happened judo was the thing that I was good at.

AG: When did you first discern how good you were?

KH: When I was 12, a former Olympic coach challenged me to try and make the Olympic trials. I had never fought in the senior divisions. For two years, I trained and traveled all over the country and I got enough points and I actually qualified for the 2004 Olympic trials.

AG: But you opted not to go.

Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports

Harrison competes in the 78 kg weight class.

KH: I was growing. It was really hard for me to make weight at that point. I decided that, yes, this is what I really wanted to do, but I didn't just want to go to the Olympics, I want to go and win.

AG: You opted to compete in a higher weight class.

KH: I think growing up, especially for young girls in judo or in weight-cutting sports, it's really difficult. You're told the lighter you are, the better you'll fight.

AG: But you don't agree with that.

KH: No I don't. When I teach clinics, when I talk to young girls anywhere, I tell them, "Look, I don't cut weight anymore. I eat like 6,000 calories a day. What I truly believe is that if you're going to win, you'll win at whatever weight you fight." I always preach that strong is beautiful, strong is powerful and you shouldn't change your body for sport, for society, for anything.

AG: You're known for your power.

KH: You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's in better shape than me in the sport of judo. I train two to four times a day. At night it's usually all sparring. A shark tank is what we call it. I'll stand on one side of the mat and then every minute someone fresh is coming at me trying to kill me, and it's awesome.

What I truly believe is that if you're going to win, you'll win at whatever weight you fight. I always preach that strong is beautiful, strong is powerful and you shouldn't change your body for sport, for society, for anything.
Kayla Harrison

AG: Your own personal Thunderdome.

KH: [Laughs] I also go to my strength and conditioning coach Paul [Soucy] five days a week. We do what I call the "death circuit." It's 10 to 12 exercises, very high intensity. It makes you want to cry. I have to sit in my car sometimes and mentally prepare for Paul's Palace of Pain.

AG: Give me an example.

KH: I have to do a sprint on a treadmill with no motor in it, and he'll set it on a 50-pound load. After that I have to go push a 225-pound sled. I feel like in another life he would have been a medieval torturer. But at the end of the day, I know that no matter how deep into a match I get, or how tired I am, my opponent will be more tired.

AG: Your coach, Jimmy Pedro, said, "Mentally, Kayla will not break. She's already fought the toughest battle of her life, so walking onto a judo mat is nothing for her." Do you agree?

KH: Yeah, I do. There's nothing in this life that's going to be harder than what I've been through already. I may lose. But no one will break me.

AG: You're both alluding here to the years of sexual abuse you suffered at the hands of your former coach, who is currently serving 10 years in prison for the crime.

KH: Sexual abuse is such a difficult subject because it does things to the mind and to the development of a young person that you can't really see. There are no scars on me, there's no injury, you can't physically see that I'm wounded. But when you're 10 or 12 years old, and you go through something like that, it changes you. It changes you as a person. It leaves scars all over your heart.

AG: What gave you the courage to finally come forward?

KH: When you live a lie, when you lie to the people who are closest to you day in and day out, it eats away at you. I was at the point where I was ready to run away, I was ready to kill myself, or I was going to have to say something.

AG: You'd been groomed by your abuser since you were a child.

KH: I had a bright future in judo and I was excelling and I was starting to win on the senior level, but all the while I was changing as a person. I couldn't look people in the eye. I couldn't stand my brother and sister. I hated my mother. All I wanted to do was judo, all I wanted to do was hang out with my coach. By 16, I was this potential Olympic star, but I was a train wreck.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's in better shape than me in the sport of judo.
Kayla Harrison

AG: That's the age you finally told your mother what he'd been doing for years. After the initial relief of telling the truth, what happened?

KH: I didn't want to get out of bed. I didn't talk to my friends. I cried every day. I slept 12 hours a night. To say that I was at rock bottom is an understatement. I hated judo, I hated my life.

AG: Your mother decided to move you to Boston, to a new training facility, and a whole new world.

KH: She knew she had to get me out of there or something bad was going to happen. I really did feel like what had once been my passion was my prison. I felt like every time I went to judo, I could hear his voice and I could see him yelling at me and I could picture my old life, and it haunted me and it tormented me and it just broke me down to the point where I was going to quit. It was too much. I couldn't do it. I wasn't that strong.

AG: How did you find your way back to your strength?

KH: In Boston, I lived in the athlete house. My new coaches got me a psychologist. They moved me up a weight class so that I could be normal and eat. They helped me come to terms with the fact that what happened to me doesn't define me. It's not who I am. I'm Kayla Harrison. I'm an Olympic champion. I'm a judo player. I'm a student. I'm an activist. I'm all of these things. I'm a survivor. But I'm not a victim.

AG: It can't be easy to unpack all those memories over and over again, but you do by speaking publicly, often, and candidly about your experience.

Refugio Ruiz/LatinContent/Getty Images

Harrison looks on during the women's 78 kg final at the World Judo Masters Guadalajara 2016.

KH: One of the reasons that I decided to share my story is because sexual abuse is very much still a taboo in our society, something that people don't want to hear about. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they're 18. And those are just the kids who say something. I wanted to speak out and say, it is real, it does happen, it happens in churches and it happens in neighborhoods and it happens in sports. The most important message that I could ever give to people who are going through what I went through, who are struggling in that really dark spot, is to promise them they are not alone.

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." That was so powerful to me, that my speaking out or sharing my story can affect someone that much and give them hope. To me, that's bigger and better than any gold medal will ever be.

I'm Kayla Harrison. I'm an Olympic champion. I'm a judo player. I'm a student. I'm an activist. I'm all of these things. I'm a survivor. But I'm not a victim.
Kayla Harrison

AG: You've also started a foundation.

KH: Yes, the Fearless Foundation for survivors of sexual abuse. I'm also writing a book with a psychologist using my story as educational material, as a guideline. This is what grooming looks like. This is how you can get help. These are all the stages of sexual abuse. My goal is for this book to be in every seventh-grade health class curriculum. Then maybe, you know, that number -- one in four and one in six -- will not be so big anymore.

AG: You seem determined to bring this issue into the light, to make it a shared responsibility.

KH: It's such a hard thing to trust again, to love again after sexual abuse. It's not something you can ever do alone. I still see a therapist every week. If it weren't for therapy, if it wasn't for the people that I surrounded myself with, I never would have learned to love again, I never would have learned to trust again, I never would have opened up. If you're a survivor, it's something that it takes a long time to bring back out. And it starts with sharing your story.

AG: When are you most yourself?

KH: I'm always myself now. I'm kind of done with pretending.

AG: You said you felt a difference after the Olympics. In what way?

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Harrison competes with Brazil's Mayra Aguiar during a semifinal match of the London Games.

KH: People listen when I talk now. [Laughs] It still shocks me sometimes. But also, internally, I realized my life-long dream. And when you do that, it settles you. Winning an Olympic medal gives you the comfort and security to be who you are and to not be ashamed of it.

AG: What is the essence of judo for you?

KH: There is so much more to judo than just the sport. The Japanese say judo is a way of life, a way of living. Not forcing things. For me, the most magnificent moments of Judo are when it's effortless. When you just ... flow.

My coach Big Jim gave me the best advice. He said, "If you leave it all out there, how can you have lost?" As I close in on the end of my career, that's something I take to heart.
Kayla Harrison

AG: Is achieving flow easy for you?

KH: No. [Laughs] It's really hard. I don't flow. At all. Maybe that's why I find it so beautiful.

AG: What else do you love about your sport?

KH: Judo is limitless. You can spend 20 years doing it and still not know everything. It's not like throwing a ball. You're throwing another human. Who is trying to throw you. And you never get the same result twice.

AG: For someone so goal-oriented, how do you handle the paradox of devoting your life to a sport than can never be mastered?

KH: My coach Big Jim gave me the best advice. He said, "If you leave it all out there, how can you have lost?" As I close in on the end of my career, that's something I take to heart. I don't want to have any regrets in my life. So I leave it all out there.

AG: That is good advice. Ever gotten any bad counsel?

KH: "Go ahead Kayla, take that drink. It's OK." [Laughs]

AG: I think we've all gotten that same, dubious advice.

KH: I actually haven't had a drink since last year. But I'm thinking Aug. 11 might be a good night to start.

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