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The road to success is often neither short nor smooth.
Kayla Harrison of Danvers, Massachusetts, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first American to win gold in judo. But she has not always been joyful and confident, as she was when she delivered the commencement address at McLean Hospital’s Arlington School 2017 graduation ceremony.
Kayla’s pursuit of judo gold, she told the graduates, started in Middletown, Ohio, when she was six years old. “It was amazing,” said Kayla. “It was something that made me special. But I was not very good.”
But that didn’t stop her from trying. She continued to lose matches and tournaments for years, but she gradually improved. Finally, after three years of competing, she won a small tournament in Indiana.
“I got to stand on top of the podium, and I got a trophy that was as big as me, and my mom was at the bottom like paparazzi taking pictures. She was so proud of me.”
Kayla said that she knew right then that she didn’t want to be a singer or a doctor—she “wanted to throw people.”
She worked hard to improve her craft, training for three days a week and then upping it to five days a week. And she also became quite good at it, winning the Junior National Championship and the Junior Olympic Championship.
However, while excelling at judo, she was not thriving emotionally. “I started to wear sweatpants every day. And I was this bright, bubbly kid, but now I couldn’t look people in the eye, and I no longer wanted to be the center of attention.”
Kayla said that she continued to keep the secret behind her emotional struggles until it got to the point, at the age of 16, where “I was going to run away, kill myself, or say something.” She chose to say something, telling her mother that her longtime judo coach had been abusing her for years. That coach was arrested and eventually sent to prison, but Kayla remained, as she described it, a “16-year-old car wreck.”
“I was just an emotional mess. Most days, I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t want to do anything. I had no passion or desire to live.”
To get a fresh start, Kayla’s parents decided to move the family to Wakefield, Massachusetts, described by Kayla as the place where her “journey toward healing really began.” It is also where she met her new coach, Jimmy Pedro, and Jimmy’s father, Big Jim, who became two key figures in her recovery. She described Jimmy and Big Jim as a “little bit rough around the edges,” but also as “the best people I’ve ever met in my life.”
But the change in geography and a new coaching team weren’t enough to improve her mood. “Most days I didn’t brush my hair, work out, go to school. I was at rock bottom.”
Despite her emotional state, Kayla won the U.S. Open, a prestigious judo tournament. Her teammates were “jumping up and down, rejoicing.” But Kayla still wasn’t happy. “All I remember feeling was completely empty, hopeless. I was never going to be happy again.”
With those emotions weighing on her, she decided to quit. She told Big Jim about her plan, and he patiently listened to everything she said. His response, however, set her on a different course.
He told her that what happened to her was indeed terrible, but that she shouldn’t let it define her, that it didn’t define her. He stressed that she had the opportunity to do something great with her life, but whether that would happen was up to her.
Just as she did when she was a little kid, she decided to fight on. She worked hard to thrive, on and off the mat. She went back to practice and school and started receiving treatment at McLean.
“Slowly but surely, by putting one foot in front of the other, and surrounding myself with people who believed in me, I was able to wake up one day and become Olympic champion. And if you had seen me at 16, you would have never, ever have thought that was possible.”
Kayla closed her commencement speech by reminding graduates that they, too, can become champions. “As you go out in the world, there are always going to be road blocks, there are always going to be obstacles, there are always going to be days that suck. It’s true. But, if you believe in yourself, and you surround yourself with people who believe in you, there is literally nothing you can’t accomplish.”