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Kayla Harrison Overcomes Tragedy for Olympic Gold

U.S. Olympian Kayla Harrison
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U.S. Olympian Kayla Harrison

Kayla Harrison had planned to begin training to become a firefighter not long after she returned home to Massachusetts from the Olympic Games in London.

She is a world-class competitor in judo, but she knew American judo athletes did not tend to pop up on television commercials.

Her fiance, Aaron Handy, is a judo black belt who became a firefighter, and she thought she would join him on the force in Marblehead, Mass. But something happened in London—something that made her a front-page story, literally overnight.

Harrison, 22, won the women’s 78-kilogram class and the first gold medal for the United States in judo. Within 48 hours, she was inundated with interview requests from news organizations and late-night talk shows. They wanted her to recount her compelling life story.

“The way things are going right now,” she said Sunday of her plans to become a firefighter, “I think they’re going to have to be put on hold a little longer.”

She could encounter other opportunities. Before the Olympics, Harrison willingly talked about the fact that she was sexually abused as a teenager by her former coach, but now she stands to earn thousands of dollars per speech or public appearance. She could get a book deal.

“We also do hope that she will receive some commercial endorsements of products that will allow her to continue to compete for another four years without having to worry about money,” said Jimmy Pedro, the two-time Olympic medallist who was the coach of the U.S. judo team in London.

Harrison is not likely to make millions in corporate endorsements like Missy Franklin, the four-time gold medallist in women’s swimming, or Gabby Douglas, the all-around champion in women’s gymnastics. But Harrison, in her own way, could cash in on her Olympic success.

She said she plans to have a “huge talk” with Pedro and his father, Jim Sr., or “Big Jim,” about how to field the corporate offers that may come her way after the Games. She has already decided that any extra money—or, for that matter, any extra glory—will be a bonus.

“America loves the comeback kid, and I’m proud to say I overcame something,” she said.

Jimmy Pedro said, “All of the added publicity will make Kayla Harrison a household name. Everybody in America will know and be touched by her story.”

Harrison only talked publicly for the first time about being sexually abused in an interview with USA Today in November, only days after Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys.

Harrison was abused by her former coach, Daniel Doyle, who pleaded guilty in November 2007 to one count of “engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place." He is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence. Harrison nearly gave up the sport.

But she moved from Ohio to train under the Pedros, decided to undergo therapy, and later testified against Doyle. She regained her ferocity, and, by the time the Olympics came around, was widely considered to have the U.S. judo team’s best chance to win a gold medal.

“I was in a good place in my life when I decided to talk about it,” she said of the interview with USA Today. “When you heal from something like that, when you come back from something like that, you can look back on it later and feel some peace.”

When she was asked if her gold-medal-winning performance in London would have been less compelling had she had not been as forthcoming about being sexually abused, Harrison paused, said, “Let me think about it,” then paused again.

She then said: “Since I’ve come out with my story, the reaction has been nothing but overwhelmingly kind. Now I’m going to have a platform to be able to help people.”

She will be happy if she can earn enough money through either speaking engagements or corporate sponsorships to continue her judo career. If not, she will eventually join Handy fighting fires. Either way, she figures she cannot lose. No one can take away her gold medal.

Harrison spent the days after her triumph trying to enjoy herself by sightseeing and taking in as many other Olympic sports as possible. She had little feel for how her victory had been played in the American mass media —including the front-page story in The New York Times and full-page commemorative poster in the Middletown Journal, her hometown newspaper in Ohio.

“Honestly, I’m not in charge of my life right now," Harrison went on to say.

Harrison said she will be prepared for whatever new opportunities come her way. “You only get so much time in the spotlight—your 15 minutes. You’ve got to take advantage of it," explained Harrison.