Every night for the past several months, as soon as her head hits the pillow, she said she envisions the same thing.
It’s the 11th day of the London Olympics and finally — after more than a decade of sacrifice, sweat , numerous injuries, non-stop travel, growing expectation and a few hellish years of abuse in between — it’s time for her to compete on the judo mats.
“Jimmy Pedro, my coach now, is big on visualization so every night — just before I go to sleep — I dream about it,” said Middletown’s Kayla Harrison. “It makes a pathway in my mind so it’s easier when I actually go through it.
“I walk through my whole day. I think about the weigh-in, eating breakfast, my warm-up, my first match, then my second and my third, all the way through my gold medal match.
“Then I see myself hugging Jimmy as soon as the match ends. I see myself climbing the stairs to find my family and hug them. We’re all crying. I find Big Jim, Jimmy’s dad, and hug him, too … And then I see myself on top of the podium with the gold medal around my neck. I watch the American flag go up and I hear our national anthem being played. My hand is over my heart. I’m an Olympic champion.”
And should the 22-year-old Harrison win gold in the 78-kilo (172-pound) weight class — and she is favored by many to do just that — she would make Olympic history. No American, male or female, has won an Olympic gold medal in judo.
As it stands, she and the other Miami Valley Olympians — all of them women, including Holley Mangold, the 350-pound weightlifter from Alter High School, heptathlete Chantae McMillian, who lives in Beavercreek and trained at Fairmont High School, and Keli Smith-Puzo, a mother of two from Oxford and a member of the U.S. field hockey team — have made history already.
Of the 529 American athletes scheduled to compete in London, 268 are women. It’s the first time women have outnumbered men on the U.S. Olympic team.
“In weightlifting, we’re sending two women and one man. That kind of shows you right there how women are coming up,” Mangold said. “For me it’s exciting to know that there are so many elite women out there.”
Harrison a gold-medal contender
Of the four women from the Miami Valley, Harrison stands the best chance at medaling.
The former Middletown High School student won her first national titles as a teenager while training at the Renshuden Judo Academy in Centerville. But it was there that her coach, Daniel Doyle, sexually abused her from the time she was 13 to 16. He was convicted and now sits in a federal prison. She moved to Westfield, Mass., outside of Boston, to train with the fabled Pedros — Jimmy was a four-time U.S. judo Olympian who won two bronze medals and his father, Big Jim, has trained a dozen Olympians — and in 2010 she became the first U.S. woman to win a world championship since 1984.
Although seeded fourth in the Olympics, Harrison is now ranked second in the world by the International Judo Federation and has beaten all 13 direct qualifiers in her weight class in previous competitions.
“She’s the best female (judo) competitor we’ve ever had in the history of our country,” Jimmy said. “For all the people who have put their heart and soul into this sport, her winning would be a dream come true. It would prove that an American can win on the judo mat. … And it would make Kayla an Olympic legend.”
McMillan — the Nebraska All American who moved to Dayton five months ago to train with Lynn Smith — surprised a lot of people by making the Olympic team. She’s just 21, didn’t compete in her first heptathlon until four years ago and she’s just 11 months removed from surgery to repair a ruptured patella tendon.
Although she finished third at the Trials — former Kettering resident Hyleas Fountain, the silver medalist in Beijing, was first — and her totals are far behind not only her two American teammates but medal favorites Jessica Ennis of Great Britain and Russians Tatyana Chernova and Kristina Savitskaya, Smith thinks she has a chance to make the podium:
“No one expects her to medal, but I think she’s got a good shot to do so. Her injury put her three or four months behind everybody, but the work she’s done in the last month (at Fairmont) has brought her closer to where we want to be.”
Smith-Puzo — whose husband Inako Puzo took over the Miami University field hockey program a year ago — is competing in her second straight Olympics. She has had two sons since the 2008 Beijing Games, but at age 33 she’s still an integral part of the team trying to win America’s first Olympic field hockey medal since 1984.
Although Mangold began Olympic weightlifting less than two years ago — and is still learning technique — she made everyone take notice when she won the clean and jerk competition at the U.S. Trials and finished second overall to Sarah Robles. Although her totals significantly trail the world’s top super-heavyweights — China’s Lulu Zhou, Russia’s Tatiana Kashirina and Korea’s Mi-Ran Jang — Mangold thinks a bronze medal is within reach. It’s the same “I-can-do-anything” attitude she used when she was a lineman for the Alter High football team.
“That’s what I’m shooting for,” she said. “No one dreams of going to the Olympics to finish eighth.”
Progress has been slow for women
There was a time when women couldn’t dream about the Olympics at all.
They weren’t allowed to compete before the Paris Games in 1900 and then only in lawn tennis and golf. It wasn’t until 1928 that they were allowed into track and field and gymnastics. Still, progress came slow and often begrudgingly.
In 1936, the U.S. Olympic Committee was facing budget problems right before the Berlin Games and decided to jettison 13 of the 17 track and field women on the team.
As the New York Times reported on July 11, 1936: “Some of the girls who qualified for the team are virtually stranded in New York and on the verge of hunger.”
Since the passage of Title IX, the 1972 gender equity law that provided innumerable athletic opportunities for women, the ranks of American female Olympians have grown. While just 21 percent of the U.S. team (84 of 400 athletes) was women in 1972, the number jumped to 48 percent at the Beijing Games (286 of 596).
So much for Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics in 1896, who initially disallowed women because he said it would be” impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.”
What do you think that guy would make of Mangold, who does a cartwheel before every competition, can do the splits and could likely hoist a Volkswagen.
She’s already become the darling of the national media. Last Sunday it was New York Times columnist Frank Bruni singing her praises.
“We have a female weightlifter, Holley Mangold, who is 350 pounds, all of it pure character,” he wrote. “To read about her is to fall in love with her self-effacement, her self-acceptance, her wit. ‘I get a lot of Creepy McCreepersons interested in me because I’m so big. It’s not norma,l it’s like a fetish,” she told Elizabeth Weil, who wrote a profile of her recently for the New York Times Magazine. ‘And I don’t like to sit outside. Not because I don’t like to be outside, but usually there are plastic chairs. Once you break a couple of plastic chairs you’re afraid of them all.’ ”
On a more serious note, Mangold said she hopes to “be a role model to anyone who thinks they have limitations or can’t do something.” I hope I can show them that anything is possible,” she said when she visited Dayton last week. “ That’s what I want them to see.”
Folks will get a chance to see her today in the Opening Ceremony. She plans to march with the U.S, athletes as does Harrison. McMillan — at Smith’s prompting — likely will not.
Smith notes that the hours of prep time and the actual ceremony itself would require McMillan to be standing six or seven hours straight on her surgically repaired left knee. He told of a study he read that claimed “96 percent of those who participated in the opening ceremonies and compete on the first weekend don’t medal. … She can do the closing ceremonies. And really the ceremony that matters most is the medal ceremony.”
Harrison’s coach Jimmy Pedro is of a different mindset:
“Unless you are competing the very next day, the experience is so positive even though it is as hassle. Basically, when you go out there you know you’ve arrived. You know you’ve made it to the big time. With Team USA, we’re the No. 1 team in the world in terms of sports and you’re surrounded by all these superstars. And you should feel like a superstar, too. It’s an experience of a lifetime.”
Mangold feels the same way:
“I’m really excited to be a part of the Opening Ceremony. A lot of past Olympians have talked to me about it and said that’s one thing you want to be sure to do. I do know it can be a long, long day. People keep telling me, ‘You know you’re not gonna be able to sit down.’
“I know it’s gonna be rough, but look. I’m a super-heavyweight. Trust me, I find places to sit — no problem.”