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Kayla Harrison: first-ever gold for US judo forged from adversity

Kayla Harrison was sexually abused by her coach as a teenager, but finding support and love in a new setting helped turn around her life and set her on a path to Olympic judo gold Thursday.

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Gold medallist Kayla Harrison celebrates during the awards ceremony for the women's judo competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games in London Thursday.

Darren Staples/REUTERS

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The first American gold medal in judo was forged between Today’s Transmission and Stewy’s Custom Cycles.

It was there, on the doorstep of Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass., that Kayla Harrison arrived in 2007 – scared, 16, and utterly broken.

Ms. Harrison had been sexually abused by her coach for the last three years. She was, she says, “an emotional car wreck” with thoughts of suicide, so her mother did what she thought was best: put her in the care of the renowned gym, run by an Olympic medalist, to start building a new life.

In the end, there could not have been a better place.

It has brought her to this moment – gold in the judo half heavyweight class (172 pounds) – and, far more than that, a life reconstructed.

Like many Olympians, Harrison found that what she needed most was a sporting family. The task of working to be the best in the world can be a solitary business, with athletes training from morning until night, locked within the universe of their own ambitions.

Sometimes, that is just too much to take. When American heptathlete Hyleas Fountain went from training on her own to training with a group of peers, it changed everything. “It makes me want to go to practice everyday. It makes me want to work harder,” she said at a media summit in May.

For Harrison, it meant something even more profound. It meant a training partner to roust her out of bed every morning at 4:30 to make her go to training – at time when she only wanted to give up. It meant she had an Olympic medalist to take her under her wing like a little sister at a time when she needed one.

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