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August 02, 2012

Kayla Harrison Wins First Ever Judo Gold for USA

by Parke Brewer

The United States on Thursday won its first-ever Olympic gold medal in judo. Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron were in the crowd Thursday to witness history being made at the London Games.

On the day that Kayla Harrison gave the United States its first-ever Olympic gold medal in judo, which came in the women’s 78-kilogram class, the leaders of Russia and the host country were there to see it.  So security was tighter than usual at the ExCel center where judo is being contested in London.

Vladimir Putin, who is a huge judo fan, has a black belt in the martial art sport and has trained with the Russian team several times leading up the Olympics.  Thus far at the London Games, Russia has had its best results in judo, with three gold medals and a bronze.

Putin came to see the men’s 100-kilogram event, and Russian Tagir Khaibulaev made it to the final, where he defeated Tuvshinbayer Naidan of Mongolia for the gold medal.  

Dutchman Henk Grol and German Dimitri Peters each earned bronze medals.

Khaibulaev said he was unaware Putin was there watching.

“There wasn’t that additional pressure.  I just tried to do my best with what I had to do.  But it was very, very pleasant and lovely that he was there to give us his congratulations personally, to shake my hand.  And it was great,” Khaibulaev said.

It was also a great day for American Kayla Harrison, 22.  In her semifinal, she defeated top ranked Mayra Aguiar of Brazil with an ippon with only 14 seconds remaining.  Then, much to the disappointment of the partisan crowd and Prime Minister David Cameron, Harrison beat Britain’s Gemma Gibbons on a pair of yukos at 3:54 and 0:59 for the gold medal.  

“I wanted to go out there and I wanted dominate the entire fight.  And I wanted the crowd and I wanted myself to know that I was Olympic champion on this day.  And you know Gemma showed up.  She fought with a lot of heart.  The crowd helped her a ton.  It was an amazing crowd.  She is a fierce, fierce competitor, and she has a lot of heart.  Today was just my day,” Harrison said.

Aguiar and Audrey Tcheumeo of France won the two bronze medals awarded in the division.

Harrison, also a world champion in judo, says she hopes her Olympic victory inspires other Americans to take up the sport.

“I hope that America loves me and loves my story, and hopefully a little girl or little boy sees this and says, 'Wow!  Mom!  I want to do that!’  And hopefully, we have 10 Olympic champions next time,” Harrison said.

The dark side of Harrison’s life has recently become familiar to many.  She was sexually abused by a coach when she was a teenager.  But she was brave enough to come forward and the man went to prison.

Watch Carla Babb's original profile of Harrison

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Her current coach, Jimmy Pedro, knows that as an Olympic gold medalist Harrison will have an even bigger platform to help victims of sexual abuse.

“It should inspire many to be brave, to have courage, to realize they are a victim, and to come forward and move on with their lives because mentally they get twisted into thinking that they are somebody they are not.  And Kayla Harrison stepped forward.  She should be a hero.  She is a hero.  And she is one brave tough, tough girl,” Pedro said.

Harrison says she is ready for the opportunity to share her experiences.

"I want to help kids realize their Olympic dreams.  I want to help kids overcome being victims.  I want to help change the sport and change people’s lives,” Harrison said.

Kayla Harrison’s family members, even her grandparents, were in London to witness her victory.  And knowing what a tough road it was to get to the top of the Olympic podium, she was unable to hold back the tears.​