Kayla Harrison makes dream come true with second Olympic gold

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 11: Kayla Harrison of the United States celebrates after defeating Audrey Tcheumeo of France during the women’s -78kg gold medal judo contest on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics at Carioca Arena 2 on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 11: Kayla Harrison of the United States celebrates after defeating Audrey Tcheumeo of France during the women’s -78kg gold medal judo contest on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics at Carioca Arena 2 on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

When 2012 gold medalist Kayla Harrison returned to the Olympics, she had two goals: bring home a second gold medal in judo and, in doing so, become the greatest American judoka in history.

In the final seconds Thursday of the 78-kilogram gold medal match, she did both.

The 26-year-old Middletown native beat Audrey Tcheuméo of France in 3:54 in her final appearance in the Olympic Games. Harrison came to Rio with the intention to retire, and she wanted to secure her legacy in the sport. She left the podium with two Olympic gold medals, five world and three Pan American championships and two World Masters titles.

“I can’t believe that this moment has happened,” Harrison said. “I’ve dreamt about it for a long time.”

KAYLA HARRISON WINS GOLD AGAIN

Her long and triumphant day of four matches began with a cool reception from spectators anticipating a gold-medal match with Myra Aguiar of Brazil. They booed the No. 1-seeded American judoka as she prepared to first meet Zhehui Zhang of China on Mat 1, a match that lasted 42 seconds. Harrison defeated Zhang in the elimination round of 16 by a 100-point ippon, the equivalent of a knockout in boxing.

The quarterfinals began just after noon. The match lasted a minute longer, the boos less resounding. But the result was the same.

Harrison tussled with Hungary’s Abigél Joó during the early stages of the match, with the pair alternately forcing each other outside the box, before Harrison seized control and pinned Joó on her neck. After a 20-second hold-down, referee Osako Akinobu awarded Harrison the ippon, giving the reigning champ a 100-0 victory in 1:45.

Aguiar, whom Harrison defeated in the semifinals at the 2012 Olympics in London, lost in her semifinal, meaning an 18th meeting between the rivals wouldn’t happen in Rio.

Harrison breezed through her semifinal in 1:43 against Slovenia’s Anamari Velenšek.

In the final, her fourth match of the afternoon, Harrison and Tcheuméo were off, their hunger for the medal tangible in the fierceness of each lunge, kick and grab. Harrison continued to dodge Tcheuméo, never giving her the satisfaction of pinning her for more than a few seconds.

Their pace was relentless and with 27 seconds left in the match, neither of them had come close to giving in. The clock kept ticking. Then, with six seconds left and a 2-1 penalty advantage, Harrison won with an ippon, trapping Tcheuméo in an armlock and forcing her to tap out.

“There isn’t anybody who could break her,” said her mother, Jeannie Yazell.

HARRISON THROUGH THE YEARS

When Harrison looked up, she was beaming. She ran off the mat, jumping into the arms of her coach and two-time judo bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro. Harrison found her mother, who was holding an American flag. She hugged her brother, Jake. “It was spectacular,” Jeannie Yazell said.

Later, Harrison embraced her friend Marti Malloy in a tunnel.

“She was set on making this one more gold, and making her stamp on the sport forever,” said Malloy, who lost in the round of 16 in the 57-kilogram class.

She now plans to help to “change the world,” she said, by focusing on her Fearless Foundation. A survivor of sexual abuse, Harrison created the foundation to help young survivors of sexual abuse through education and sports.

“I want young boys and girls all over the world to feel fearless and to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

“There is a shiny gold medal,” she added. “Maybe even two.”

Cat Cardenas and Jasmine Johnson are reporting from the Rio Olympics for the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism.