April 10, 2018 | Before she was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Kayla Harrison didn’t want to be the golden girl. She didn’t want to get out of bed. She didn’t want to talk about being sexually abused by her judo coach. She most certainly didn’t want to train, even though she was winning national tournaments.
“I was completely empty. I felt like I was never going to be happy again,” Harrison told the audience of over 150 people at the Clinton School of Public Service on April 4. But with support from her family and new coaches, Harrison learned that the abuse didn’t have to define her.
Ten years later, Harrison made history by being the first American (man or woman) to win two gold medals in judo, first at the 2012 Olympics in London and then the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Now retired from judo, Harrison has a new purpose — taking down child sexual abuse. She created the Fearless Foundation to shine a light on the issue through education and survivor support, and gives frequent public talks about her experience.
“Fighting back and using this platform to be of service to the public is the greatest thing I’ll ever do,” Harrison shared at the Child Abuse Prevention Month event cohosted by the Clinton School and the Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma (ARBEST) program of UAMS’ Psychiatric Research Institute.
Harrison’s new book, “Fighting Back: What an Olympic Champion’s Story Can Teach Us about Recognizing and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse — and Helping Kids Recover,” deftly weaves her story with research from the experts who treated her as a teenager for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I saw therapists weekly. I’m a big believer that mental health is just as important as physical health. It’s a big part of my routine as an athlete to this day,” Harrison said during a Q&A after the talk. She also stressed the importance of finding an outlet.
“Judo is my safe place. But it doesn’t have to be judo. Survivors just have to find something — maybe it’s poetry, or archery, or knitting or tennis—something that instills confidence, something that is positive in their life.”
Harrison didn’t leave, however, without showing off some moves from the sport with 12-year-old Grant Howard of Heber Springs. Howard came with his father David, who has a 4th degree black belt and was a timekeeper for the judo events during the 1996 Olympic Games.
“She is an inspiration,” David Howard beamed.
Harrison’s message of perseverance resonated with judokas, therapists and survivors alike. A crowd lined up after the event to get a copy of Harrison’s book and meet the champion. One woman, a survivor who wished to remain anonymous, clutched Harrison’s book tightly to her chest.
“This just makes me want to learn more. She makes me feel less alone. She gives me hope.”