Blogtober Day 13: Kayla Harrison (+ International Day of the Girl)

I discovered Kayla by complete accident during the London 2012 Olympics. It was the midday lull, when most of my favorite sports weren't on TV, so I flipped to judo to see if anything interesting was happening. I happened to catch Kayla's story before her match, and by the end of the match I was in tears. Like, actual tears.

Kayla was sexually abused by her (now former) coach between the ages of 13 and 16. She won two national championships by the time she was 15, but her coach was reported to the police and, in 2007, received a 10-year prison sentence and was banned from the sport.

Afterwards, Kayla moved and switched coaches. She won bronze at the 2010 World Judo Championships and gold in 2011. She was injured in training before the 2012 Olympics but ended up winning gold in her weight class anyway, beating the No. 1-ranked judoka in the world as well as the hometown hero on her way. She then burst into tears while atop the podium, and I was a total goner.

She also happens to be an A+ human being. Eddie Liddie, 1984 gold medalist and director of high performance for USA Judo, says, "Class act all the way. With her opponents, with her teammates, with her family. You want your girl to grow up ... [and for] her to be Kayla." And her coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Jimmy Pedro, says, "She's a good, good person. Cares about other people. Always willing to give back. She has an attitude of gratitude. And there's nobody more deserving than her to climb to the top of podium. She never skips a practice, she never skips a run, a lift." I mean, I don't know about you, but that's definitely the person I want wearing my country's flag as the national anthem plays.

In a perfect world, this is how sexual abuse cases would happen; the perpetrator would get reported and suffer the appropriate consequences. So the fact that it actually happened this way is pretty remarkable, but not more remarkable than the way Kayla rebounded from it. This girl ain't no victim!

Kayla also happens to be the first American to have won Olympic gold in judo. Not the first American woman to have won Olympic gold in judo, mind you. The. First. American. Casually making history, no big deal. In true karmic fashion, what went around came around -- she suffered horribly, but is now in the history books forever. Pretty freaking awesome.

To sort of piggyback on Kayla's story, October 11th was International Day of the Girl (thanks for the heads-up, Harper!). Girls around the world face challenges, discrimination and violence every day. Kayla was able to overcome her situation because of a phenomenal support system, but other girls aren't nearly as lucky. International Day of the Girl focuses on promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. This year's focus was on girls' education in particular; this video really puts things into perspective.

In an article by the New York Times, when Kayla was asked what she wanted to do now that she'd won Olympic gold she said, "I think it'd be pretty cool to be a kid." It was Kayla's choice to devote her childhood to judo, but other girls have that choice taken away from them by broken systems. It's time to spread awareness so these girls can be kids before having kids.

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  1. Lovely article, and yes, Kayla is totally an A+ human being. (I was lucky enough to meet her when I started Judo, at Jimmy Pedro's.)

    1. Oh that's so awesome that you got to meet her! She seems like such a cool person to hang out with.

      Thanks for reading! :)