Mother nearly misses Olympic golden moment

Jeannie Yazell was so confident her daughter, Kayla Harrison, would win the gold medal in judo at this year’s Olympics in London that she didn’t need to watch the match.

And that’s nearly what happened.

Minutes before Harrison, 22, a Middletown native, was scheduled to fight Great Britain’s Gemma Gibbons Aug. 2 in the gold medal bout in the under-78 kg division, Yazell and her husband, Mike, realized they didn’t have tickets to the finals. Yazell said two pieces of their luggage were stolen from their seven-bedroom flat days before, and when the bags were found, the Olympic tickets to the preliminary bouts were still in a sealed envelope.

But the tickets to the finals — stuffed in a separate envelope — were stolen.

Yazell said after standing at the gate, and discussing the situation with arena officials, she was told she needed a ticket. They didn’t care that she was Kayla Harrison’s mother. Once she saw other spectators leaving — upset their seats had obstructed views in the arena — Yazell told her husband: “We’re going in.”

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And like her daughter, they never were stopped.

It’s a good thing because as it turned out, Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic judo gold medal. Yazell, 44, who just returned home in Middletown, said after her daughter won the gold medal match 2-0, those around her, several from the Middletown area, had tears streaming down their faces.

But not her.

“I never had a doubt,” she said Thursday afternoon, minutes before she watched her son’s soccer scrimmage at Middletown High School. “I have known for years that she’d win the gold. It was just like another judo tournament.”

How confident? Years ago, part of Yazell’s e-mail address read: Judomom12. As in 2012 Olympics.

But once Harrison stepped onto the top rung of the podium, the one reserved for the gold medalist, and the national anthem started, Yazell was overcome with emotions. She called it the “best sounding” Star-Spangled Banner ever.

Why did Harrison win, her mother was asked?

“She won the gold over and over in her head,” her mother said. “She could visualize it.”

More than two hours after the gold medal match — after Harrison passed a doping test and was interviewed by the throne of national and international media — she was reunited with her mother, stepfather, grandparents and friends from the Middletown area. She told her daughter how proud she was of her accomplishments on and off the mat.

“It was amazing, wonderful to watch her reach her dream,” her mother said.

Harrison lived in Middletown until she was 16 and a junior at Middletown High School. She was sexually abused by her coach, Daniel Doyle, a former two-time national champion as a teen. He was convicted and he’s serving a 10-year sentence. A month after the abuse was revealed, Harrison moved to Boston to train with Jimmy Pedro, a noted judo instructor.

She still lives there with her fiance, Aaron Handy, a firefighter and former Fairfield resident.

Besides her mother and stepfather, her stepbrother Jake Yazell, 14, stepsister Aura Yazell, 17, grandparents Gary and Barb Ogdin, and friends Melissa and Abby Malcomb, Barb Bradley, Katie and Lisa Banks and Courtney Gainey were in London for the Olympics.

Now that she’s a gold medal winner, her life never will be the same. She is scheduled for an appearance on the David Letterman Show, will meet President Obama with other Olympians at the White House, and she will participate in at least four judo clinics.

And the night she won the gold medal, the Daily Mail’s web site had eight photos of Harrison, some shot at a nightclub called Mahiki and in a taxi.

Her mother said she’s “going to be pretty busy for a while.”

Middletown city and school officials are coordinating efforts to celebrate Harrison’s Olympic medal, the second for the city and first in 52 years. Jerry Lucas won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics as a member of the men’s basketball team.

Harrison’s father, Kenny Harrison, has suggested renaming a street near where Harrison was raised in her honor, and city officials have discussed a parade or pep rally.

Her mother suggested a sign proclaiming Middletown “Home of the Olympic champion.”

And what about those pieces of luggage being stolen? Besides the tickets, the thieves took the Harrisons passports, birth certificates and about $300 in cash. Now, she said, replacing those items don’t seem like such an inconvenience.

“We got what we went for,” Yazell said with a laugh.

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