RIO DE JANEIRO – Kayla Harrison grinned as she stood on the top step of the Olympic podium. She gave a thumbs-up. She blew a kiss into the crowd. She took a bow. She sang the national anthem. Very enthusiastically.
“I’m happy,” she said. “I’m retired – as two-time Olympic champion. That’s it.”
Harrison certainly knows how to go out on a high note.
Ranked No. 1 in the latest world rankings, Harrison defeated No. 2 Audrey Tcheumeo of France by ippon Thursday in the women’s -78 kg. gold-medal bout at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
She then jumped into the arms of her coach, Jimmy Pedro.
“He was just screaming ‘Two-time Olympic champ!’” Harrison said, “and I was thinking, ‘Is this my life? Is this real right now?' I just looked at him. I can’t believe that this moment has happened. I’ve dreamt about it for a long, long time.”
Harrison became the first U.S. judoka to win back-to-back Olympic medals of any kind. Four years ago in London, Harrison was the first Team USA athlete to win a gold medal in judo. The only other only U.S. athlete to win two medals in the sport is Pedro, who won bronzes at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
“As a coach, what you try to do is make your athlete surpass what you’ve done,” said Pedro, who runs a judo center in Wakefield, Massachusetts. “To me, that’s creating a legacy. My father never made it to the Olympics and helped me make an Olympic team, helped me win two bronze medals and now the next generation we prepare and make them even better. That’s called a program.”
To prepare Harrison for Rio, Pedro admitted that he and his father, Big Jim, “put her through hell.”
“She went to places she didn’t want to go,” Pedro said. “She went to camps, she fought in competitions. She fought injured. We told her if you can win these events not at your best and not wanting to be there, then wait until the Olympics come because they’re going to feel a different Kayla.”
Harrison did whatever the Pedros asked.
“It’s been probably the longest four years of my life,” she said. “I fought with a separated shoulder, fought with a fever, fought with knee pain, fought with hand pain. At pretty much every tournament on the circuit the last four years, there were a lot of moments when I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to get up for practice and go get the crap kicked out of me. But Jimmy and Big Jim, with them it’s all in or nothing.
“They made it so that I worked too hard to give this up to anybody today. The misery and the pain — I had to have done it for something. It had to be worth it.”
Harrison refused to quit even after reconstructive knee surgery in 2013.
“It was insane,” Pedro said. “I don’t know that she thought she would ever come back physically from that and be able to get back to where she was. And she had a hard road. She didn’t win right away.
“Many events along the way, she got beat, but she just kept getting stronger as time went by.”
Harrison also won her first three bouts Thursday by ippon, which is like a knockout in boxing. She defeated Anamari Velensek of Slovenia, one of two bronze medalists, in the semifinal.
Before the Rio Games, Harrison felt fate might play a part in determining her final opponent.
“I fought a British girl in London, it might be destiny to fight a Brazilian girl in Rio,” she said.
However, Tcheumeo defeated Harrison’s arch-rival, Brazil’s Mayra Aguiar by penalty. Aguiar won the other bronze medal, just as she did in London.
Tcheumeo, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and 2011 world champion, came out slapping her forehead with the heel of her hand and scowling.
“Audrey is so strong physically,” Pedro said, “In training camps, she’s very dominant, gives Kayla nightmares in camp. But this is Kayla at her best. She’s not tired, she’s rested. She peaked for this event. Mentally, physically, she was ready.”
Harrison was pleased with her four ippons. “My coach isn’t going to be able to yell at me about that,” she said. One of her bouts lasted only 43 seconds. The longest was against Tcheumeo, which went 3 minutes 54 seconds, nearly to the buzzer.
“I think it’s really hard to repeat as Olympic champion,” Harrison said. “It’s one of the hardest things that you can do, especially from the United States in a sport like judo. We don’t have the bodies, we don’t have the funding. Russians get funded $20 million a year, ours is $500,000 a year for everybody.”
“It was almost impossible.”
And yet she did it.
"Took two years off my life," said Pedro. “With these kids we have so much time invested, so many emotions invested. They go through such struggles. The sport of judo is not easy.”
He said with other nations investing more money in the sport, “Our kids are up against such odds, it’s amazing that we can even win a single medal, let alone produce a two-time Olympic champion. It’s beyond words.”
So what's next for the 26-year-old Harrison? “Awww,” she said. “I know you all want to know if I’m going do MMA or not, but tonight I’m just going to live in the moment, be Olympic champion, and tomorrow I’ll decide what my future holds. Maybe a month from now.”
She said she needs to spend a little time on the beach before she decides.
Harrison divulged that she has already had offers to follow her former training partner Ronda Rousey into the professional ranks.
"I'm sure they were watching,” she said. “If they weren’t, they missed out.”
But she just wants to enjoy being “Two-time Olympic champion!” for a while. Harrison was in her element in Brazil.
“Just walking around, people stop me and ask for a picture,” she said. “That doesn’t happen in the United States. For me, I personally thrive on it. This is the highest stage in the world. This is what I’ve worked for.
“Judo has been my life,” Harrison added. "It’s given me so many opportunities. I’ve traveled the world. It’s changed my life and it’s saved my life.”
As reigning Olympic champion, Harrison used her platform to start the Fearless Foundation, which sheds light on child sexual abuse and helps survivors through education and sport. Before the London Games, Harrison revealed that she had been sexually abused by a former judo instructor who was sent to prison.
“When you become Olympic champion, things change, whether you like it or not,” Harrison said. “There are certain responsibilities that comes with carrying that title. Kids ask me to take pictures or sign their belt. They say they want to be next Kayla Harrison. That’s a huge honor. The Olympic athletes get a small, 15-minute window. It’s cool, it’s crazy and it’s fun. Once all of that calms down and once the reality sets in and people care about what you have to say, that has been the best part.”
Harrison said that her legacy on the mat is fulfilled and now she’s try to change the sport – and the world – in different ways. Her company, KHE, Inc., will assume control of organizing and operating the U.S. national championships for five years beginning with the 2018 edition.
And there’s her foundation, which is still in its infancy. Harrison said she chose the word “fearless” because the Pedros, who were so instrumental in getting her life back on track, would say, “Kayla Harrison, you be fearless! You unleash and you will be Olympic champion.”
“It’s always about being fearless and believing in yourself,” she added. “I want young boys and girls around the world to be fearless.”
And, she said, there may be a shiny gold medal in their future. “Maybe two.”