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This is what a real hero looks like
Kayla Harrison stood on the medal stand Thursday, the first American ever to win a gold medal in judo. As America’s national anthem played, as tears streamed down the 22-year-old’s face, her life flashed before her eyes:
Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to go lifting. Her judo coach, two-time Olympic bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro, kicking her butt in practice at their dojo outside Boston. Pedro’s dad, an old and crusty judo vet called Big Jim, telling her to get up off the mat and push harder. Her mom and dad and brother and sister and fiancé.
“I saw only the good,” a beaming Harrison said moments after winning gold.
She did not see the bad. On the medal stand, Harrison did not have flashes of the judo academy near her hometown of Middletown, Ohio, where she started training at age 8 as a girl whose mother wanted her to be able to protect herself. She did not think about her demanding judo coach in Ohio, a man 16 years older than her named Daniel Doyle, who started sexually abusing her not long after that. She did not think of the time when as a teenager she walked into a courtroom, steeled herself to testify, and then Doyle saw her and decided to plead guilty, taking a 10-year prison sentence.
This was not a time for seeing the bad. This was a time of triumph for the biggest American hero — in the truest sense of the word — of the 2012 London Games.
“You’re talking about somebody who came from the lowest point of her life, who didn’t know if she wanted to go on any more, to now stepping on top of the Olympic podium, as an Olympic champion, the first American to ever do it in the sport of judo,” an exuberant Pedro said after the gold-medal ceremony.
Forget the amazing Michael Phelps and his legacy-crowning moment of a record 20th Olympic medal. Never mind the ebullient Gabby Douglas, with her all-around gold in gymnastics that topped off America’s team gold. Don’t focus on the two American women who set world records in swimming.
Our greatest Olympic hero is Kayla Harrison. Not just because she was the first American to win judo gold. Not just because everything she made it through on the way to gold. But because what happened after a moment this past November, when she saw a throng of Penn State students rallying in support of a football coach instead of the sex-abuse victims.
“I was almost disheartened by my country, to hear that kids at Penn State were protesting for JoePa but not for the victims,” Harrison told FOXSports.com this spring. “What kind of world do I live in? Are students really doing that? When that happened, when the victim was that far away (from people’s minds), I was in shock.”
It was that moment, when Harrison decided she must speak publicly about the worst times of her life, when Kayla Harrison became a true hero.
Thursday was just the moment the rest of us realized it.
She woke up in the morning and just knew she was going to win. Harrison called it a white moment, one of those rare times when an athlete is in total control. She listened to the Eminem song that helps her focus, “Lose Yourself.” Throughout the daylong tournament in the women’s 78-kilogram weight class, she repeated the same words she’s said every night for the past four years, when she’s visualized winning gold: “This is my day, this is my purpose. ‘Kayla Harrison, Olympic champion.’”
She beat a formidable Russian in her first match as Russian president Vladimir Putin looked on. She controlled her second match from the very beginning, against a tough Hungarian that Harrison had never beaten. She beat the Brazilian ranked No. 1 in the world in the semifinal round, and then, as British Prime Minister David Cameron looked on, took out the hometown favorite, Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain, to win gold.
“I wanted it today,” she said. “I’ve never wanted anything more in my life.”
On the medal stand, she did not think about when she was a 16-year-old girl who moved away from her family to train at the Pedros’ elite dojo in Massachusetts. Because back then was a dark time, too. Back then, she was burdened with her secret of those years of sexual abuse.
“I hated judo,” said. “I hated the Pedros. I did not want to be the strong girl. I didn’t want to be the golden girl. I didn’t want to be the girl who overcame everything. And that’s why I owe all of this to the Pedros and my teammates. They’re the ones that got me out of bed in the morning and said, come on, let’s go lift. They’re the ones who picked me up off the mat when I was crying and wanted to quit.”
Heroes don’t quit. Heroes get off the mat. Heroes show the world that nothing can stop them. Heroes stand up and speak confidently and fight for what’s right.
“This just proves that you’re only a victim if you allow yourself to be,” Harrison said, showing off her gold medal.
After the tears stopped and the smile widened and the national anthem ended, Harrison ran off the judo mat and hopped over a barrier in the arena. In the stands were her mother and her father, her brother and her sister, her grandmother and her grandfather. The grizzled Big Jim stood in the background, and darned if Harrison didn’t see the old man crying.
Kayla went to her fiancé, a Massachusetts firefighter named Aaron Handy. He grabbed her in a bear hug.
“He was crying and saying he was so proud of me and trying to give me the flag,” the Olympic hero said, giggling with glee, “and I just wanted to kiss him.”
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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