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Kayla Harrison: Judo star is fired up to get back on top

By Joanne C Gerstner | Sept. 21, 2011, 5:14 p.m. (ET)


Normally, Kayla Harrison loves to see a look of fear in her opponent’s eyes from the moment she steps onto the judo mat. Harrison is known for her intensity and ferociousness, capped off by an icy stare, which have helped propel her to the top of the judo world.

But things were different this past August, as it was Harrison who was struggling with a touch of detectable anxiety and fear. It was the World Judo Championships in Paris, and Harrison was coming in as the defending 78 kg champion. Her 2010 world title was a huge feat, as she was the first American woman in 26 years to win gold at the World Judo Championships.

It’s one thing to be the hunter, like in 2010. This year, Harrison learned it’s quite another to be the hunted.

“Honestly, I went into the World Championship not feeling 100 percent confident,” said Harrison, who is from Middletown, Ohio. “I was the reigning champion, and I felt a little bit of pressure out there that I’ve not gone through before like that. It got to me, because I wasn’t sure what would happen and that made me really nervous.

“Last year, anybody that stepped across the mat to me was dead. And now the eyes were on me, and I wasn’t in that same frame of mind.”

Harrison made it to the semifinals, where she faced a true test in taking on Frenchwoman Audrey Tcheumeo in front of a reported 12,000 boisterous French fans. Tcheumeo won the match, and eventually took gold, while Harrison had to settle for bronze.

At the time, the bronze medal seemed like a failure. Now, given a month’s space of reflection and space, Harrison is at peace with what happened in Paris.

“I think it was good, and so do my coaches,” Harrison, 21, said. “It was a valuable lesson, and I am really glad to have it now as I am working hard to make it to London. I definitely am focused, and I feel like from now until the Olympics, it’s only about the Olympics.”

Harrison visualizes what it would be like to win the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games every night, right before she goes to sleep. She does the same routine at big tournaments, such as worlds, to pump herself up.

The image is very sharp in her head: she sees the American flag being raised, the anthem playing in the background. She gets the medal, and then runs into the crowd to hug her family and friends. She went to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games as a fan (she won the U.S. Olympic Trials but Team USA had not qualified in her division) and was deeply impacted seeing the medal ceremony scene.

“I really see it in my mind, the American flag going up, I think about that,” Harrison said. “In any tournament, there is no greater sense of pride than standing on top of podium that I can I think of. Doing it at the Olympics would be beyond amazing.”

Harrison’s goals are to improve her mental strength and level of world-class experience by the 2012 Games. It’s a balance of doing the right training, not under- or over-preparing. She is training with Jimmy Pedro and the USA Judo National team, based outside of Boston.

“There's no doubt she's emotionally and psychologically ready to win the Olympics,” Pedro said at the world championships. “In fact, this bronze will just make her hungry to prove herself as the world's best in London.”

Her schedule over the next few months is jam-packed: going to Mexico for the Pan American Games in October, then she is heading to Japan for a month of training.

She’s particularly excited about going to Japan, where the elite dojos (martial arts training centers) are packed with women for her to compete against. Her pickings are slimmer here in the United States, as judo still is not at the popularity level to produce large numbers of elite competitors. She’s ranked No. 1 the United States, meaning she needs to seek out other competitors to keep her sharp and progressing.

“Japan is like the mecca for judo; it’s amazing,” Harrison said. “I can walk into any dojo at any university in Japan, and there are like 50, 80, 100 girls on the mat, on any night. And they’re all really good. So it’s the perfect place for me to really get some competition time in.”

Harrison is putting school on hold for this year, as she wants to dedicate every moment to train for the 2012 Games. Her workouts are twice per day, two hours per session. The mornings are dedicated to technical, with the evening sessions focusing on sparring. Add in running three days per week and power lifting on the other three days and the week is full.

Harrison jokes she “gets to die” on Sundays, her lone day off, when she is not training.

“I am going to give it my all, because I can see where I want to be in judo,” Harrison said. “Judo teaches you the discipline, the mental strength to get through things toward your goals.

“I am really, really all in on this.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Joanne C. Gerstner is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Kayla Harrison