Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Moving on now to another Olympics first, today Kayla Harrison won the first ever gold medal for the U.S. in the sport of judo. The 22-year-old won in the 78-kilogram weight class. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, Harrison is famous for her fight in many ways.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: When Kayla Harrison felled the Russian, things were looking good. She executed a flawless ippon, the killer throw that ends a judo match. She was making good on her endlessly intoned mantra: This is my day, this is my purpose.

Opponent number two, an unorthodox Hungarian who Harrison had never beaten, was up next. Well, actually, Harrison had beaten her hundreds of times because her coach, Jimmy Pedro, played the part of the Hungarian in practice every day for weeks.

The preparations went well. And when the Hungarian appeared hurt in their bout, Kayla knew what to do. I asked Nick Delpopolo, Harrison's teammate on Team USA, to provide the expert analysis.

NICK DELPOPOLO: You know, Kayla smelled blood. She went after and she took advantage of the situation. She fought great. She came back from behind, and that's what it takes to win a tournament like this.

PESCA: Judo is one of those sports you don't play; you give yourself over to. You commit to a coach or a teacher at a young age. Harrison and her family's trust was betrayed by a coach who sexually abused Kayla starting when she was 13. Harrison went public a few months ago after she was appalled that Penn State students had taken to the streets in defense of Joe Paterno. She cried all the way through her first full interview on the subject. She's cried a little less each time after that.

The Olympics, by comparison, aren't a breeze, she says. But flipping 170-pound opponent on her back is what she's best at. Heading into the third match, Harrison had stretched her international winning streak to 18 in a row. Her last lost back in February was to Mayra Aguiar. Aguiar was Kayla's next opponent. It should have been close. Harrison made sure it wasn't, thrilling Coach Pedro.

JIMMY PEDRO: She's the number one girl in the world, and Kayla took her apart. I mean, she physically looked so strong today. We've got everybody going in the right direction. I'm fully confident Kayla's going home with a gold today.

PESCA: Pedro took in Harrison when she was 16, fragile and depressed. He was by turns tough and loving. He had the credentials to back up his methods, credentials that four days ago, Harrison described this way:

KAYLA HARRISON: Jimmy is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist. He's world champ. He's literally the best - amongst the great athlete we have as of right now.

PESCA: Now Kayla was in the finals. In her way, Brit Gemma Gibbons. After the bout, each fighter, totally focused, said they had not noticed that Vladimir Putin and David Cameron were in attendance.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PESCA: About a minute in, Harrison scored a yuko, a half throw. Three minutes later, another.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the winner, Harrison, United States of America.

PESCA: After a victory, a champion will sometimes say: nothing was going to stop me. It seems obvious in retrospect. To anyone watching Harrison this afternoon, it seemed indisputable in the moment. Afterward, teammate Nick Delpopolo described finally seeing an American wearing gold.

DELPOPOLO: I'm not even shocked because I kind of knew she was going to do it as the day went on, but to finally see it, it's like, wow, man. It's powerful stuff, you know?

PESCA: For a moment after the medal ceremony, Harrison reflected on the 16-year-old she was who, her words, hated judo and considered ending it all. Now, six years later, Harrison says she wants 7,000 young American girls to sign up for judo lessons tomorrow. She wants to hug her family. She wants, maybe, to have a beer. She was called at various times a hero to her sport, a hero to her country, a hero to other girls who may have been victims. It was clear after all she's been through she's a hero to herself.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, London.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: