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Kayla Harrison: Judo Gold Encore In Rio, Then Follow Ronda Rousey To MMA?

By Karen Rosen | June 20, 2016, 7:28 p.m. (ET)

Judo competitor Kayla Harrison poses for a portrait at the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee promotional shoot at Quixote Studios on Nov. 17, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Kayla Harrison has been booed in Brazil.

She would gladly be booed again at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

“I was almost honored that they knew to boo,” said Harrison, who became the first U.S. judoka — male or female — to win an Olympic gold medal four years ago in London. “Because sometimes you go to an event and they’re like, ‘What’s going on? Judo, how does this work?’

“Brazil’s going to be amazing. They love judo there.”

They especially love Mayra Aguiar, the Brazilian who is Harrison’s arch-rival in the -78 kg. division.

Theirs is one of the most enduring rivalries in the sport — the subject of documentaries in Brazil — with a head-to-head record at 9-8 in Harrison’s favor after she overtook the Brazilian at Sunday’s World Judo Masters tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Both qualified for the Rio Games on Monday based on world rankings, with Harrison No. 1 and Aguiar No. 4.

The first time Harrison beat Aguiar, they went into a golden score, judo’s version of sudden death, in a world cup final in Sao Paulo. Aguiar lost on a penalty.

“I had never been booed before,” Harrison said, “so I was like, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to win. People don’t like it sometimes.’ But I liked it. I was happy with it.”

And she’d be happy to face Aguiar in Rio for the gold medal.

“I’m not talking smack or anything,” Harrison said, “but I think it would be pretty poetic if I fought a Brazilian girl in the finals in Brazil.”

After all, Harrison took down hometown favorite Gemma Gibbons 2-0 in London for the gold medal. In the semis, Harrison upset Aguiar, then ranked No. 1 in the world, and the Brazilian settled for the bronze.

Aguiar got revenge in the semifinals at the 2014 world championships, though Harrison was thrilled to take the bronze medal “which I had no business doing,” she said, since she was coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Harrison then went to Brazil to train with Aguiar.

“We have a lot of respect for each other,” Harrison said, but added, “We don’t have sleepovers or braid each other’s hair.”

In their next showdown, Harrison beat Aguiar by ippon — which is like a knockout in boxing — at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto for the gold medal. Both suffered uncharacteristically early exits from the 2015 world championships, which left Harrison devastated and vowing to “pick [herself] back up.”

At the Paris Grand Slam in February, Harrison armbarred two opponents and threw another before her bout with Aguiar.

“For the first time in a long time, I felt like, ‘OK, Old Kayla is back. No injuries. No aches, no pains. I feel good,’” she said. “And then in the final, Jimmy (Pedro), my coach was like, ‘All right, just go out there and enjoy it and play smart.’”

Harrison was winning by a penalty — “and then, she bombed me,” she said. “Threw me for ippon… and it was a beautiful throw. I’ve watched it like 40,000 times.”

Harrison roared back on April 27 at the Pan American Championships in Cuba to defeat Aguiar by an ippon through an armbar, then made it two in a row at the World Judo Masters. After scoring a yuko approaching the halfway point, Harrison got Aguiar in an armlock leading to an ippon with 54 seconds remaining.

“I think years from now I’m going to look back and I’m going to realize I spent some of the best moments of my life with Mayra Aguiar, the highs and the lows,” said Harrison.

However, Harrison, 25, worries that she and Aguiar, 24, might know each other too well. “Sometimes I almost psyche myself out when I fight her because I overthink it sometimes. I want to win so bad that I don’t go out and just unleash.”

Looking Back On London

Four years ago, Harrison thought her unleashing days might be over.

On the mat in London after securing her gold medal, she “just took a breath. ‘Whew, it’s over. You did it.’ Even to this day, there are still moments where I’m like, ‘You are Olympic champion. No one is ever going to take that away from you. You are Olympic champion. For forever. The rest of your life. Olympic champion.’”

Harrison had gone into the Olympic Games injured and talked about retiring from the sport. She went under the knife to fix her knee in June 2013 and was on bed rest for six weeks with her leg in a brace.

“You have a lot of time to think about your life, what you want to do,” Harrison said. “And for me, I couldn’t imagine not ever setting foot on a mat again.

“I was scared of who I would be without judo and I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to get back on the mat and see if I still have what it took.”

A New Mission

She also had another mission. Prior to London, Harrison revealed that she had been sexually abused by a former judo instructor who was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

While recovering from her surgery, Harrison started the Fearless Foundation to shed light on child sexual abuse and help survivors through education and sport.

“Judo has been my whole life and winning a gold medal has been amazing and it’s changed my life,” she said. “But I think sometimes maybe that it happened for a reason other than just me getting to say I’m an Olympic champion. Maybe I was put there for a purpose and this is my purpose.

“I’m not really making the world a better place by trying to throw someone on their back. But it’s given me an opportunity to use my platform to make the world a better place and that to me is more important than any number of gold medals.”

Harrison is also writing a book with a psychologist.

“I remember growing up there was all this material on stranger danger, ‘say no to drugs’ and safe sex,” she said, “and now there’s all this material on anti-bullying. But there is no material on what you should do if someone close to you tries to take advantage of you. And I think that that is a big, big problem.”

She gives speeches and is often approached by people who share their stories.

“I want to help change someone’s life,” Harrison said. “I want to help save someone’s life. So, even though it’s hard to talk about sometimes and it sucks and I relive it, every time you talk about it a little piece of you goes, ‘It’s worth it. Absolutely.’”

Marti Malloy sees a change in her best friend since London.

“She’s so confident,” said Malloy, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist who also qualified for Rio based on her No. 4 world ranking in the -57 kg. division.

“I think just everything she’s been through, her whole journey and coming out on top on the other end of that, being successful in judo and she’s doing amazing things with her Fearless organization. All that combined, whether you know it or not, is going to slowly make you stand up straighter and believe in yourself and be confident.”

While Malloy never doubted that Harrison would come back for 2016, Harrison said she might not have done it without her.

“I knew she was going again,” Harrison said, “and I was like, ‘Marti’s going to travel the world for four years and beat people up? OK, I can do it, too!’ I’m the peanut butter, she’s the jelly, baby.”

Malloy said they are “as tight as you get. But, at the same time, we’re both so competitive that neither of us ever wants the other person to get the upper hand. Even with stupid little things.”

For example, in a train station in Japan, they were walking up a long flight of stairs. “I look over at her,” Malloy said, “she looks at me and I start walking a little faster. She starts walking a little faster. And then before you know it, we’re sprinting to the top. And we’re so exhausted from training, we can’t even walk half the time and we’re sprinting to see who can get to the top of the stairs. This is what we do all day, every day.

“Some people look at it as a negative thing, but for me, it’s more like, ‘How can I do this to the best of my ability?’ And she’s the same way, which is why I think we get along so well.”

“You name it, I will be competitive at it,” Harrison said. “I actually got really upset because I was at a photo shoot and they tried to have me hula hoop and apparently I cannot hula hoop. And I didn’t know that about myself, so now I’m going to have to go back and train and I’m going be the best darn hula hooper that ever lived.”

Harrison said she’s taken a different approach to training for Rio than she did four years ago.

“Before London, I was so focused and I had blinders on,” she said. “It was just about winning, winning, winning, winning. And obviously, I want to win. But I’m really learning to enjoy the journey more and embrace the grind, the highs and the lows, the ups and the downs, the rollercoaster ride that is this because these are the best days of my life.

“One day I’m going to look back and wish that I had really enjoyed that run a little bit more, because now I can’t run because my knees hurt so bad.”

Mixed Martial Arts Or Judo?

After Rio, Harrison must make a big decision about her future. She’ll decide if she wants to leave judo for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), just like her former roommate Ronda Rousey.

“I never say ‘never,’” Harrison said. “Judo is my first love. It’s my passion. But who doesn’t want to be famous? It takes a special kind of person, but I think that I could step in the cage and beat somebody up for a lot of money.”

Harrison said her agent has been in talks with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), but also with the International Judo Federation, which could have a role for her after her competitive career.

Harrison said she has to “sort of just figure out where I belong.

“The one question I ask myself is, ‘Do you really want to start from the bottom again? Are you ready to start all over? You’re going to be 26 years old. Are you going to completely reshape your whole life and reinvent yourself?’ Because that’s what I’d have to do.”

However, while recovering from knee surgery, she tried boxing to stay active and “Turns out that I liked hitting stuff as much as I liked throwing stuff,” Harrison said with a laugh. “That is when I first got the inkling that maybe I would be able to punch somebody in the face.”

And the large audience for MMA, thanks in part to Rousey, appeals to her. “UFC is a PR machine,” Harrison said. “It’s becoming very mainstream. Ronda’s name is a household name now. I’m not saying that I would grab headlines as much as her because she’s a very unique person, but I think that having a broader audience and having a bigger impact than just what I have now would be definitely something that I’m interested in.

“Think of all the people that I could talk to about my foundation.”

The trash talk in MMA, though, doesn’t fit her personality. After all, judo is a peaceful art and means “gentle way” in Japanese.

“If someone insulted me, I would just laugh,” Harrison said. “I think about that all the time. I’m like, ‘OK, you have to be able to have really good comebacks, be really witty and sharp. And I’m the type of girl who if you insult me or you make fun of me, I’ll think of something — that night in bed. I’ll be like, ‘I got it! I should have said that! Darn it!’”

Rousey has asked Harrison to be in some future projects with her and Harrison said she has been a good mentor and “guided me through some of the craziness and some of the stuff that I’ve had to do.”

A “Ronda Complex”

While Rousey was preparing for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, where she won a bronze medal, Harrison was her training partner.

“One thing I will never deny about Ronda is she would rather chew off her own arm than lose and I’m the same way,” Harrison said. “I would do whatever it takes to win, so having that kind of atmosphere where you’re training in it every night makes you get a lot better a lot faster.”

They shared a house with other athletes near Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Harrison, who was 16 and starting in a new place after the abusive situation with her former instructor, was the youngest.

“To be quite honest, there were days when I had no money and she would go buy the groceries,” Harrison said. “And then I could eat for a week. Yeah, there’s this big, tough Ronda persona out there for the world, but the Ronda I remember is the Ronda who would buy me groceries or make sure I had a ride to practice. Or when there were internet trolls making fun of me, she would go online and say something because people listened to her opinion.

“She was a major part of my life during the time when I could have gone either way. I was in a really bad place when I first met Ronda, so the fact that she was there for me and all of my teammates were there for me, and the Pedros were there for me, they all hold a special place in my heart because of that.”

Harrison said Rousey’s favorite word to describe them at that time was “frenemies” — friends, but enemies on the mat.

Harrison doesn’t expect to ever fight Rousey in a cage.

“You’d have to chop off my legs to make 135 pounds,” Harrison said.

But she still feels as competitive toward her former rival as she does toward current rival Aguiar.

“I guess you can say I’ve always kind of had a Ronda complex,” Harrison said, “because she was at the Pedros’ before me, she was their golden girl, anything she could do I wanted to do better. It’s made me push myself harder to be better and do more than any U.S. judo player has ever done.

“I think Ronda was in the right place at the right time and she was the perfect person to take women MMAs to the level that she’s taken it. If it had been me, it wouldn’t have been as successful, because I’m not Ronda. That’s the truth of it. She is — she’s crazy.”

Harrison laughed. “She’ll say whatever she wants whenever she wants to whoever she wants. She’s not afraid of that. I’m not like that in a lot of ways and I’m a little more reserved. I don’t have any regrets. I’m happy with where I am. Everyone has their own journey. Ronda has her own journey. I have my own journey. Everything happens for a reason and if I do MMA, then I’ll have a Ronda complex again and I’ll have to do everything bigger and better, but for now, I’m happy just being Kayla.”

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