Kayla Harrison presents her grandfather Gary Ogdin with the Order of Ikkos medal during their visit to the USA House at the Royal College of Art
The summer of 2004 Kayla Harrison was 14 years old; I was 17. At the Junior National Judo Championships in Waikiki, Hawaii, we faced off in the finals. It was a tough match against the young, talented Miss Harrison, but I won.
“I was pissed that day!” Kayla laughed, “I remember that, and I was so mad that I lost.”
Naturally, I was happy for the win and Junior National title, but, truth be told, I also felt a little lucky.
I knew at that moment she would go on to do great things; it wasn’t until last night that I realized how great.
Today, she is Kayla Harrison, the first American Olympic Judo Champion.
For the past few years there has been a core group of us USA Judo athletes competing internationally together to try to qualify through world ranking to make the U.S. Olympic Team. We have grown as close as a family on the road. Although I did not qualify to compete at the Games in London, I wanted to be there to cheer on my longtime friends, especially Kayla.
So in London after she won the Olympic gold medal on Thursday, there was a celebration in her honor at the USA House, and we were lucky to have some moments alone to talk as friends. She and I get along well and have had a lot of fun along her journey to the Olympic Games. Kayla is a very tough competitor on the mat, but off the mat, she can be very feminine. She is very fashionable and loves accessories, as do I.
“This has got to be the prettiest accessory I’ve ever seen on you,” I said to Kayla last night as we walked back to the main room for more celebration.
“I know, right!?” She grinned, and continued to talk about how beautiful the Olympic gold is.
In the past she has told me that I was someone she looked up to in competitive judo, I told her last night that the tables turned a long time ago. There are many characteristics I admire about Kayla, one of which is her kind, caring manner toward not only friends and family, but to everyone.
It was packed at USA House, and Kayla was happily being bombarded by fans and fellow athletes after she presented the Order of Ikkos to her grandfather as being a major influence in her Olympic quest. This award is given by the medal winning athlete to someone in their life who made the biggest impact on their Olympic journey and is a symbol of the medal that athlete won.
Kayla had finally sneaked away to eat in a private room with her family and the first thing she said was, “Where is my sister? I gotta talk to her; I think I hurt her feelings. I have to apologize.”
Even though that night was the biggest moment of her life for celebration thus far, she remained the thoughtful person she is, and took care of her loved ones. She’s always been like that. Whenever I have needed a friend to talk to on the long weeks of competition tours together, she has been there, sincerely concerned and ready to give hugs.
The Olympic ideals are in her blood: friendship, excellence, and respect.
At the Venezuela World Cup last summer she spent an afternoon cheering me up after feeling like I was in a bad slump. I had felt so apathetic about judo, but by the time we were done talking I was ready to fight again and take on the world. She just reassured me that all athletes go through their bad days, you just have to stick it out and keep working hard to get through to the other side.
In Paris, where Kayla took second at the Judo World Grand Slam, she and I were roommates. We had a blast that trip. The U.S. team even went out after the tournament to watch the Super Bowl in the middle of the night.
Kayla was at the center of it all cheering on the New England Patriots in support of her coach, Jimmy Pedro, I, however, cheered for the New York Giants in support of my coach Eddie Liddie. There was friendly banter going back and forth between the team all night, and in the end my side of the judo squad got to go home bragging with the win, but we all went home smiling.
All over the world Kayla, the other judo girls, and I have taken the time to hang out as friends in between the rigors of training, even if it’s just lying around between training sessions watching Disney movies or looking at wedding magazines.
Aaron Handy, Kayla’s fiancé, rolled his eyes, “Oh great, of course Kayla’s looking at wedding dresses in Paris, ha ha.”
With a quieter and patiently sweet personality, Aaron complements Kayla nicely. Their embrace after she won in London made me tear up last night when she wrapped herself around him in the middle of the crowd and shared a whispered moment with him. I could tell they were the only two in the room at that point with nothing but a gold medal between them.
The humble, kind, gracious champ never stopped smiling as the fans continued to ask for photos. She even let people wear her medal: they were wearing a piece of history.
Everyone who asked received a big smile, “Yeah! Of course.” She has been the happiest Olympic Champion I have seen thus far.
My final question to Kayla was one that I always ask her after a big win.
“So Kay, what purse are you going to buy now?”
Her fiancé just looked at us and smiled, “Don’t you have enough purses?”
A girl can never have too many purses. Besides she may need to buy a new one for her first Olympic gold medal.