LONDON, England, United Kingdom — Kayla Harrison made history on Thursday by becoming just the first American (man or woman) to ever win a Gold Medal in Judo at the Olympic Games. She did so by running the gauntlet in an incredibly talented field of judoka in the Women’s 78 kg (172 lbs) division.
The only other American women to win an Olympic medal in Judo is current Strikeforce bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and Harrison’s current USA Judo teammate Marti Malloy. Rousey won a bronze medal in 2008 and Malloy won a bronze medal on Monday. In 2008, Harrison traveled to the Olympics in China, as a training partner for Rousey and the two remain close friends.
Harrison, who just turned 22-years-old a month before the Olympics started is a native of Middletown, Ohio, entered her first Olympic Games as favorite to win at 78 kg, after winning the World title in 2010 and taking bronze at the World championship last year. Harrison has been training with USA Judo’s national team coach Jimmy Pedro at his school in Wakefield, Massachusetts, since she was 16-years-old. Pedro is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, former world champion, and 6th degree black belt in Judo.
Harrison started her history making run towards gold in the second round, after earning a first round bye due to her #2 world ranking. She started her first Olympics against Vera Moskalyuk of Russia. In just 56 seconds, Harrison forced her Russian opponent to tap out due to a Juji Gatame (Armbar), which is the same technique her friend and training partner Rousey has used to submit all of her opponents in MMA.
Above: Kayla Harrison used a Juji-Gatame (Armbar) to submit Vera Moskalyuk, which is the same tecnhique her friend and training partner Ronda Rousey has used to submit all of her opponents in MMA.
The win earned Harrison a trip to the Quarter-Finals, where she met the reigning European champion Abigél Joó of Hungary. Joó had just defeated Audrey Koumba of Gabon in 38 seconds by Ōuchi Gari for Ippon. Standing 6-feet-tall, Joó had a four-inch height advantage on Harrison and quickly used it to her advantage. 74 seconds into the match, Joó attemped an Uchi Mata and landed it for Waza-Ari, which earned her a substantial 10-point lead. Harrison remained calm and kept the pressure on. She scored Yuko (1-point) for O Goshi before completing the comeback by ending things with a perfect Osoto Gari (Big Outer Reap) for Ippon.
The win over Joó saw Harrison advance to the Semi-Finals against the #1 ranked Mayra Aguiar of Brazil, who is the last person to defeat Harrison before the Olympics. Aguiar, like Harrison, had also won her first two matches of the day by Ippon over the likes of Hana Mareghni of Tunisia and Daria Pogorzelec of Poland. Once again, Harrison would make her friend Rousey proud by submitting her Brazilian opponent via Juji-Gatame (Armbar), which earned Harrison a trip to the Gold Medal match.
In the Final, Harrison would have to battle the crowd as well as her opponent, as she was paired up with the hometown favorite Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain. The crowd inside the ExCeL Exhibition Centre exploded with cheers for Gibbons as both Harrison and Gibbons walked out to the mat and had their names announced. Among the excited fans in attendence was the British prime minsiter David Cameron and the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Gibbons had earned her spot in the Final by defeating the likes of Yahima Ramirez (Portugal) by Ippon, Lkhamdegd Pürevjargalyn (Mongolia) by Yuko, Marhinde Verkerk (Netherlands) by Waza-Ari, and reigning world champion Audrey Tcheuméo (France) by Uchi Mata for Ippon in the Golden Score.
Harrison would keep her eyes on the prize with the very vocal and encouraging instruction of her coach Pedro being shouted from the side of the mat. At 59 seconds, Harrison opened the scoring with a Tsuri Goshi (Lifting Hip Throw) for Yuko. Then for good measure, Harrison scored another Yuko nearly 3 minutes later via Kubi Nage (Headlock Throw) for Yuko and accumulated a 2-0 lead that she would never relinquish.
That was all Harrison needed to get her arm raised as the first American in history to win a Gold Medal in Judo at the Olympics. The silver medal went to hometown hero Gibbons of Great Britain and the two bronze medals were awarded to Aguiar of Brazil and Tcheuméo of France. You can keep up-to-date on Kayla Harrison and her Judo career by liking her Facebook page www.facebook.com/KaylaHarrisonJudo or following her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Judo_Kayla.