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Kayla Harrison Wins Gold In Continued Rivalry With Brazilian Judoka

By Mike Gardner | July 15, 2015, 1:10 a.m. (ET)

Kayla Harrison celebrates her gold medal at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games at the Mississauga Sports Centre on July 14, 2015 in Toronto.

TORONTO -- In a highly anticipated clash of two judo titans, Olympic gold medalist and current world No. 1 Kayla Harrison successfully defended her 2011 Pan American Games gold medal in -78 kg. Tuesday night at the Mississauga Sports Center in Toronto.

She defeated Brazilian Mayra Aguiar by ippon in the 13th meeting of the two, which was described by some as a “dog fight.” Canada’s Catherine Roberge and Cuban Yalennis Castillo claimed bronze medals.

“It’s very difficult; to me it’s always about the mind with Mayra,” said Harrison, who improved her record to 7-6 over Aguiar. “She’s such a good judo player and she’s so strong, and her technique is so good that if I want to win, it’s going to have to be usually like that: a very tactical, smart match. It’s all about digging deep and finding heart.”

Since coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, Harrison hasn’t missed a beat – claiming victories at the World Masters and the Dusseldorf, Tbilisi and Budapest grand prixs before winning gold in Toronto.

“I really had to use my brain a lot more this time around,” she said. “I’m definitely not as young, but I’m also more experienced going into this Olympics, and I really had to dig down and figure out whether or not this was something I wanted to do again and I do and I think it definitely shows on the mat.”

Now she prepares for the world championships in August in hopes of reclaiming the title she won in 2010. After losing to Aguiar in the semifinals of the 2014 worlds, Harrison traveled to Brazil to train with her and, since then, the two had not faced each other until Tuesday night.

While Harrison continued to win in 2015, the Brazilian and current world champion, did not participate in most of the tournaments, making Harrison skeptical of her No. 1 ranking – until the friendly rivals were reunited on the mat.

“In the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘Am I number one, am I really the champion?’ and today I wanted to prove to the world and to myself that I am,” Harrison said. “I respect Mayra a lot, she’s a great player I think she’s a good person and I think that if we weren’t competitors we’d probably be out having a beer right now.”

Cutro-Kelly Proves To Be Late Bloomer

U.S. judoka Nina Cutro-Kelly won bronze in the women’s +78 kg. by awasete ippon, for her first Pan American Games medal. She overcame Samantha Da Chunha of Argentina in the bronze-medal match. Idalys Ortiz of Cuba won her second consecutive Pan Am gold medal by defeating Vanessa Zambotti of Mexico. Meanwhile, Brazilian Maria Suelen Altheman captured the other bronze medal.

Cutro-Kelly admitted she was relieved that the tournament was over, both because her final opponent outweighed her by 60 pounds and had trained specifically to fight Cutro-Kelly.

“Feels good (to medal), it’s been a long day, so I’m happy I could pull it off,” Cutro-Kelly said. “But it’s a pain in the neck because that means I can’t sneak one in anymore.”

At 30 years old, Cutro-Kelly had never medaled at a major international event, but a bronze was enough to give her confidence heading towards the world championship and Rio 2016.

“It’s great, it’s just awesome,” she said. “I haven’t had a long career; at 30, I started winning medals this year. It’s just amazing because I’m not too old for this anymore, I thought I was for a while, but I’m not too old.”

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Kayla Harrison

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Nina Cutro-Kelly