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Harrison Aims for 1st US Olympic Gold in Judo

The U.S. Olympic team has won hundreds of gold medals, but never a gold in the combat sport, judo. A 22-year-old American is hoping to change that at this year's London Games.

Kayla Harrison is a judo World Champion, and she's heading to her first Olympic games this year ranked number 2 in the world. Harrison got started with judo as a means of protection.

"My mom took it in college, and so, when I was a little girl, she wanted me to learn self-defense," recalled Harrison. "I loved to fight. I don’t think I won a match for like the first three years, but I had a lot of fun."

Harrison has more than made up for that by becoming world champion and aiming for the title of Olympic champion. Along the way, she had to battle a personal nightmare. She was sexually abused by her coach when she was a teenager.

"I remember what it was like to be a victim and I remember how it felt and the taboo around it. And I remember walking into a room and feeling like all eyes were on me, and feeling like, you know, just you break out into a cold sweat and you feel so anxious," Harrison added.

But Harrison did not quit. She changed coaches and moved to Boston.

Six years later, Harrison is focused and ready to take down the competition in London. And she wants abuse victims everywhere to know they too can move on to achieve their dreams.

"Yes, it happened to you but it doesn’t define you," Harrison noted. "And yes, it’s going to be tough, but you can’t let it control your life. You have to say something. You have to speak out. You have to be strong."

Kayla Harrison says her inner strength comes from the support of her coach and her teammates. She knows they'll be rooting for her at the Olympics as she goes for gold.
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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.