(Colorado Springs, Colo.) - Eighteen-year-old Kayla Harrison (Wakefield, Mass. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE) didn't fly to Bangkok, Thailand this week with the goal of making it to the podium at the Junior World Championships.
To anyone who knew her, the Middletown, Ohio native made it very clear that she was going to bring home the gold. The task would put her as one of only three U.S. players to win Junior World titles. The previous two gold medalists - Ronda Rousey (2004) and Hillary Wolf (1994) - would go on to win Senior World medals with Rousey winning bronze in Beijing at the Olympic Games.
"I was definitely disappointed with how I did [at the 2006 Junior Worlds] and I'm going this time to win it," Harrison said emphatically prior to leaving for Bangkok.
Although she was shut out in 2006, Harrison used her losses two years ago as motivation to win it all in Bangkok.
In fact, Harrison had a nearly perfect day on Saturday, winning five consecutive matches without giving up a single score to her opponents.
Up by a penalty in her first match, Harrison threw 2008 Pan American Junior Champion Steffani Lupetti (BRA) for a waza-ari (half-point) and then held the Brazilian scoreless for the remainder of the four-minute match.
In the second round, Harrison took Katarzyna Furmanek (POL) to the ground, pinning the European Junior medalist twice. Although she escaped the first hold early in the match, Harrison brought her down again less than a minute later, this time pinning her for ippon (instant win) with a sankaku (triangle hold).
With new rules in place for the tournament in which you must advance to the quarter-finals to be eligible to fight for a medal of any color, Harrison's win guaranteed her a chance to fight in the medal rounds, but she never lost sight of her goal to make it to the finals.
"I came here to win and we had a game plan for the whole day, so I just stuck to it. Jason did a great job coaching me. He knows Jimmy really well, knows his style and they'd talked about what the game plan was earlier, so we all knew what to do," Harrison said of Junior World Team Coach Jason Morris (Glenville, N.Y.) and her coach at home, Jimmy Pedro (Wakefield, Mass.)
Harrison led her next match against Nino Odzelashvili (GEO) by a waza-ari before using her sankaku again to choke Odzelashvili for the win.
In the semifinals, Harrison controlled the grips against Asian Junior Champion Ruika Sato (JPN), winning the match by a yuko (quarter-point) scored when she threw Sato with an o uchi gari (inner leg throw).
"My grips have gotten a lot better since going out to Pedro's," said Harrison who relocated to Wakefield from Ohio in 2007. "I really owe it to my coaches. I don't think I would've made it out of the first match without good grips."
After a morning of controlling her opponents, Harrison had a break before her evening final against Audrey Tcheumeo (FRA). The reigning European Junior Champion was the only player of the day who Harrison had fought previously and, although Harrison earned the win in their last match, she was nervous before the final.
Having moved up to 78kg earlier this year from the 63kg division where she won the Senior U.S. Open a year ago, Harrison was guaranteed to be one of the smallest women in her new division and knew going into the tournament that she could be fighting players with a 20 pound advantage.
"I knew that, but I was really focused. Me and Jimmy and Big Jim [Pedro's father and Harrison's coach] drilled and drilled for this, but I was a little worried about the French girl. I fought her in Belgium and I beat her, but at the last second and I remember when she grabbed me that I thought ‘Oh my God, this is the strongest girl I have ever fought in my entire life," Harrison said of Tcheumeo who won a bronze in the senior division of the Belgian Ladies' Open earlier this year.
In the final, Harrison controlled the grips again and Tcheumeo was given a penalty for grabbing the inside of her pants leg during the first exchange. Harrison took the lead in the second minute when she threw Tcheumeo with an o uchi gari for a yuko score and would win the match a minute later when she countered Tcheumeo for ippon.
"I'm really excited because I've been working hard for this all year. It is an awesome feeling to win thes gold," Harrison said. "It feels really good to know that all the hard work has paid off. My coaches and my teammates, the whole club has all been helping me train and I really want to thank them for all of their help."
Harrison plans on returning to senior competition later this season when she competes at the Kano and Korea Cups in December.
"I'm looking forward to going home and getting back into training again," said Harrison who will turn 19 next year, making her eligible to defend her title in 2009. "I look forward next year's World Junior Championships and also the Senior World Championships. And, of course, I will work hard to be in London in 2012."
And what does Harrison plan on doing with the latest addition to her medal collection?
"I'm probably going to give it to my mom because my family's done so much to help support me over the years," Harrison said.
Harrison's teammate from the 2006 Junior World Team, Nick Delpopolo (Glenville, N.Y. / NYAC / USA Judo National Training Site at the Jason Morris Judo Center) earned Team USA's only other match win of the day, pinning Erzhigit Abdyldaev (KGZ) in the first round of the 73kg division.
Delpopolo lost his next match by ippon to eventual bronze medalist Victor Oliveira (BRA). Although Oliveira advanced to the semifinals, under the new rules, since Delpopolo had lost prior to the quarter-finals, he did not get carried through to the repechage.
Danny Satinsky (Buffalo Grove, Ill. / Cohen's Judo) lost his opening round match at 81kg by ippon to eventual champion Alibek Bashkaev (RUS), a top-eight player on the senior circuit who won three World Cup medals earlier this year.
Helen Delpopolo (Westfield, N.J. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Jason Morris Judo Center) lost in the first round of the 70kg division by ippon to reigning European Junior Champion Abigel Joo (HUN) who went on to win bronze.
Competition continues on Sunday with the men's 60kg and 66kg and women's +78kg divisions.
U.S. players competing include:
Complete results are as follows:
1. Won-Jung Kim (KOR
2. Benji Nortan (NED)
3. Riki Nakaya (JPN)
3. Victor Oliveira (BRA)
5. Maxime Lambert (GER)
5. Alexandros Tsopozidis (GRE)
7. Andrea Regis (ITA)
7. Vitali Shauliuk (BLR)
Also Competed: Nick Delpopolo (Glenville, N.Y. / NYAC / USA Judo National Training Site at the Jason Morris Judo Center), 1-1
1. Alibek Bashkaev (RUS)
2. Artem Vasylenko (UKR)
3. Yasuhiro Ebi (JPN)
3. Ramin Gurbanov (AZE)
5. Mike Chavanne (SUI)
5. Szabolcs Krizsan (HUN)
7. Christoph Kronberger (AUT)
7. Matteo Marconcini (ITA)
Also Competed: Danny Satinsky (Buffalo Grove, Ill. / Cohen's Judo), 0-1
1. Haruka Tachimoto (JPN)
2. Mayra Silva (BRA)
3. Abigel Joo (HUN)
3. Irina Sordiya (RUS)
5. Su-Hyun Ju (KOR)
5. Anne-Katrin Kisewski (GER)
7. Dehbia Founas (ALG)
7. Kim Polling (NED)
Also Competed: Helen Delpopolo (Westfield, N.J. / USA Judo National Training Site at the Jason Morris Judo Center), 0-1
1. Kayla Harrison (Wakefield, Mass. / NYAC / USA Judo National Team FORCE)
2. Audrey Tcheumeo (FRA)
3. Nadia Campestrin (SUI)
3. Ruika Sato (JPN)
5. Luise Malzahn (GER)
5. Nino Odzelashvili (GEO)
7. Ivanna Makukha (UKR)
7. Hana Maraghni (TUN)