(Colorado Springs, Colo.) - After four years and six weight divisions, 18-year-old Kayla Harrison (Wakefield, Mass. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE) will have another opportunity to fulfill her goal of becoming the third American to win a Junior World title when she takes to the mat in the 78kg division on Saturday at the Junior World Championships in Bangkok, Thailand.
A former nationally ranked player in every Olympic weight division except +78kg, Harrison qualified for her first Junior World Team as a 14-year-old in the 52kg division in 2004, but an injury kept her from competing.
Two years later, Harrison had passed through 57kg and 63kg on her way to winning her first Senior National title as a 70kg player. Although she was considered one of the favorites among the Americans to fight for a medal at the Junior Worlds in Santo Domingo, she lost both of her matches and didn't place.
"I think I was just outconditioned. The Cuban was in better shape. We went to Golden Score and she was able to pull it out," Harrison said of her 2006 performance. "And the Korean, I think I just didn't know how to fight against someone with her style. If I would've known then what I know now, I would have done better."
In fact a lot has changed for Harrison since 2006. Six months after the Junior Worlds, she relocated to Wakefield, Mass. to train with World Champion Jimmy Pedro and his team of athletes that also includes 2007 World silver medalist Ronda Rousey who was the last U.S. player to win the Junior Worlds in 2004. Harrison also moved down a weight division to 63kg where she placed second in her first event at the lighter weight - the 2007 Senior Nationals.
"My judo's definitely improved since being at Jimmy's, mainly my matwork. You never would have seen me go to the mat before and, look, I just armbarred two different girls at the Trials," said Harrison who won the 78kg division at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Judo after moving up in January.
Although the United States isn't qualified to compete in 78kg at the Olympic Games this year, Harrison thought it was still important to compete in Las Vegas.
"I guess I fought Trials because I'm an optimist and there's always hope that the division might open up," she said. "But really it was a great experience which will prepare me for 2012 when hopefully my division will qualify. I've competed at lots of events, but this was totally different. My division wasn't even qualified and I was still shaking just going out onto the mat, so it was good to see what that was like."
A 2007 U.S. Open Champion at 63kg, Harrison's decision to move up two weight divisions was a rare one, but paid off quickly with a second Senior Nationals title and an undefeated record against U.S. players.
"I'm much happier now. I qualified for the Trials at 48 in 2004 and I've cut for every division I've been in since then. I'm 100% positive it's helped my judo. At 63, I didn't really lift. The focus for every workout was just to maintain your weight, not get muscle. Now I'm much stronger and I think it's really helped me. I don't understand why the rest of the world is cutting!" Harrison laughed.
At 5'6," Harrison will likely be not only one of the lighter players in the division, but one of the shorter ones as well, but she remains unfazed by the size difference.
"Any time you move up, you have to do it believing you're gonna win it," she said. "I was definitely disappointed with how I did [at the 2006 Junior Worlds] and I'm going this time to win it."