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Outside the Rio Spotlight: American Triumphs You Didn't See at the 2016 Olympics

Outside the Rio Spotlight: American Triumphs You Didn't See at the 2016 Olympics

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Outside the Rio Spotlight: American Triumphs You Didn't See at the 2016 Olympics

476 pagine
7 ore
Jan 22, 2018


In the 2016 Olympic Games, a dozen athletes—record-breakers, notable pioneers, and all-around thrilling competitors—were overlooked in the prime-time TV coverage obsessed with sprinters, soccer legacies, and “angry faces.” Outside the Rio Spotlight tells tales of courage and American excellence at its peak, stories of those who contest in the lesser-known sports like judo, rowing, BMX, and fencing. Told in the style of 16 Days of Glory, the book details the tournaments for these athletes who compete –- with little funding and even less hype -- for the love of their sport and the honor of their country, which is the essence of the Olympics. These U.S. athletes did it whether anyone was watching or not. (120,000 words)

Stories included in Outside the Rio Spotlight:

--Kayla Harrison, the first American judoka to win two gold medals
--Kyle Snyder, the youngest freestyle wrestler to win a gold medal
--Helen Maroulis, a freestyle wrestler, who upset Saori Yoshida, a Japanese legend
--Claressa Shields, the first American boxer to win two gold medals
--Michelle Carter, first American woman to win the shot put
--Matthew Centrowitz, Jr., the first American man to win the 1500 in over a hundred years
--Kristin Armstrong, the first cyclist to three-peat as a gold medalist and the oldest gold medalist in cycling
--Connor Fields, the first American to win a gold medal in BMX
--The American women’s rowing eight, who won their third gold medal in a row after being undefeated in 11 years
--The American women’s water polo team, who has medaled in every Games since water polo was opened for women
--Kim Rhode, the only athlete to medal in six consecutive Olympics and to medal on five continents
--The American women’s sabre fencing team, including Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American athlete to compete in a hijab

Jan 22, 2018

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Outside the Rio Spotlight - Maria Kaj


Outside the Rio Spotlight:

American Triumphs You Didn’t See at the 2016 Olympics

By Maria Kaj

Your respect for the author’s copyright is deeply appreciated.

Text copyright © by Maria Kaj 2018

Cover design collaboration by Maria Kaj, Karin Kaj, and Shawn Marie Bryan 2018. Photo courtesy of Shawn Marie Bryan.

First Edition.

All rights reserved. This work is sold subject to the condition that it shall not in any way be circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any alternate, copied or replicated form of digital, binding or cover. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book by any means without permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy.

Information contained is based on publicly available sources and is neither authorized nor endorsed by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC/Team USA) or its athletes.

Although the author and publisher have attempted to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information contained, we assume no responsibility for errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or any inconsistency herein. Information provided is as is.

For more information:


Or contact

And keep reading the blog:

Thank You!

This book is dedicated to the athletes who strive every day

to bring their best to the competition,

knowing they won’t make the headlines or shine in the spotlight.

Some of us are watching, nevertheless.

And to my wife, Karin, for her unwavering support and boundless patience.


I. Outside the spotlight

As Gertrude Stein or George Orwell might have said:

A gold medal is a gold medal is a gold medal.


All gold medals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the United States dominated in sport at an unprecedented level, winning 46 gold and 121 total medals. This was the highest gold medal and total medal count for America—for any nation—in an unboycotted Olympics that was not the host country. Americans won in 20 of the 27 sport categories with 210 athletes receiving medals in dozens of individual categories. By any stretch of the imagination, that is a whopping mound of athletic success.

However, if you watched the national prime-time feed or scanned headlines, only six sports seemed to occur. The vast majority of coverage involved swimming, gymnastics, basketball, diving, sprint races, and beach volleyball. The other 20-plus sport categories were crammed into quick updates that merely mentioned a winner or flashed a still shot of the medal ceremony. Many of these glossed-over achievements were notable firsts, nail-biter contests, or unusual in their success. Just showing a picture on the screen about the youngest gold medalist in a sport or the only person to win a medal on five continents simply does not do justice to these achievements.

This book sets out to spotlight the athletic performances that didn’t make it to the nighttime feed. The first double-gold medalist in Judo. The oldest American in cycling and the first to win three gold medals. The epic upset by an unranked young woman from Baltimore of a Japanese wrestler who had been undefeated for years. A next generation sport—BMX—with a crazy outcome. American teams so heavily favored that expectations were astronomical, that still won in rowing and water polo. The first-ever medalist in six consecutive Olympics.

All in all, the 12 stories here will provide a better look at the athletes who train, compete and excel to represent the best that America has to offer.

They do it whether anyone watches or not.

Why Is No One Watching?

TV producers seek ratings. Television is funded by advertisers, advertisers are seeking eyeballs, and eyeballs are defined by ratings. Those are the A-B-Cs of network television. Producers choose what they believe will attract all those eyeballs. Swimming and gymnastics are shown because those sports have been watched before and are also likely to reap medals for U.S. athletes. However, the choice becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Americans watch those sports because they have seen them before; therefore, they will watch them again because they know the sports and the athletes. Household names become household names because that’s what the household sees.

Gymnastics is watched now because 44 years ago a Soviet pixie named Olga Korbut danced on a mat like no one had done before. Four years later, Romanian Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10.0 finished cementing the viewing public’s interest for good. Neither was American. Certainly, a gymnast tumbling on a balance beam or flipping in the air can be breathtaking. Yet, is it really that interesting to watch multiple gymnasts run down a vault runway and flip in the air in an identical way, six times in a row? Is it inherently more interesting than watching a judoka flip an opponent in 30 seconds or a wrestler escape a pin?

Forty years ago, the American audience knew nothing about gymnastics. Today—at least during the Olympics—the average viewer knows that a fall off the balance beam is a big deduction, that a step out of bounds can cost an athlete a medal, and that Gymnastics 101 is to fly high and stick the landing.¹ Viewers know the rules because they’ve watched the coverage. If, instead, they watched fencing for three nights in a row, they would also know that the fencing competition area is called a piste, that stepping off the striped end leads to a point, and that a team win requires 45 points. Sports are familiar or unfamiliar based on what people see.

Americans won more swimming medals in Rio than in any other category. Put another way, they won half the swimming medals available. One guy—one ridiculously talented athlete named Michael Phelps—won six medals, which led to a lifetime total of 28 Phelps medals, obliterating the next highest total of 18 on the Olympic all-time list. That next highest total, by the way, was for Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina.

Americans love to watch winners, so, the logic goes, we must love to watch swimming. Yet how many swimming races do we really want to see? Does anyone who doesn’t know a swimmer personally ever watch swimming in non-Olympic years? Would you go back and re-watch old swimming races from prior Olympics? Given the breadth of all the sports that the Olympics has to offer, would you rather watch the tenth American win a swimming race or see an American win in a sport that hasn’t been shown, like BMX cycling or rowing?

Part of the benefit of the Olympics is to display all that the human race is capable of achieving. To focus on only a handful of sports—even if those are sports our team will win—defeats the purpose of the Games. This is especially true when time is devoted to showing so many preliminaries, heats, and semifinals for a sport like swimming, when completely ignoring medal matches of other sports where American athletes triumph.

Another claim that network producers might make is that people want to watch the best and most famous athletes. Team USA basketball is popular even though—or perhaps because—the team is likely to win, given its stable full of celebrity millionaires. Yet, other American teams are just as dominant. The women’s rowing eight hadn’t lost in 11 years at the start of the Rio Games. The women’s water polo team had medaled in every Olympics since women started playing water polo. Basketball teams are better known because basketball appears on U.S. television, but that argument is again circular. What is the national sport of Yugoslavia? Water polo. Water polo players in that country are household names. American water polo players could be household names in America, if anyone regularly watched them.

Additionally, some of the best performances aren’t gold medals. Americans know this. Even given the obsession with gold medals and winning, Americans will back other athletes who medal, selectively, and the media supports this. When Michael Phelps tied for second with two other athletes, NBC showed his entire medal ceremony, complete with the Indonesian national anthem for the swimmer who came in first. All of Kerri Walsh-Jennings’s beach volleyball matches were shown in their entirety, including the semifinal where she lost. Prime-time coverage of her bronze-medal win was shown as well as her medal ceremony with someone else’s anthem. Americans can become interested in a bronze-medal win. But some bronze-medal matches seem to take precedence over others.

Contrast that with the bronze-medal match in team fencing. A great deal of pre-Olympic focus was showered on Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first female American Muslim to wear a hijab in competition. Even so, Muhammad’s team bronze-medal fencing match—a team that included fencer Mariel Zagunis, a previous gold medalist—was not shown. Their semifinal loss to the Russians was a heartbreak but still worth watching, and the medal win over rival Italy was a barn-burner. Both made for exciting viewing but were not shown on prime-time. The losers were the American viewers.

Not Enough Time? Not the Right Time Zone?

It’s a shame, yes, but prime-time coverage only has so many available hours, argues the network producer. There is only so much time to cover so many sports.

Sixty-eight hours. That’s what NBC boasted that they were able to show on their 16 nights of coverage, four hours per night, not including hundreds of hours during daytime and the weekends on their partner cable channels. NBC showed 1750 total hours on television. Another 4500 hours of feed was made available to Olympic aficionados (like myself).² One of the big media complaints prior to the Games was that the coverage was so bloated.

The network even extended their evening coverage until midnight, which prompted the daily social media complaint that people were getting Olympic headaches from staying up to watch. But what was covered in that time slot? Factoring in all the heats in swimming and sprint races, all the preliminary diving rounds, or even all the minutes of shots of athletes warming up, waiting for scores, listening to music, or glaring at each other, there was time to cover other sports. Michael Phelps’s frowny face at Chad Le Clos was amusing, but it was also re-shown a dozen times.

For comparison, the elapsed time of Kayla Harrison’s gold medal-winning judo tournament—not just the gold-medal match, but the entirety of all four of her matches—clocked in at under ten minutes of competition time and under 20 minutes of total time. The American public would have found those matches riveting, instead of two or three more swimming heats.

Another old but still-used claim is that Olympic coverage is constrained because the time zone is unfavorable for the networks. However, Rio is in nearly the same time zone as New York, which makes that argument just plain hokum. The vast majority of Brazilian competitions took place during the day, hours before the airing of the night’s events, with plenty of time available for the network to produce a complete package of all the day’s events. They chose otherwise.

For example, all of the gymnastics events—all six for the men and all four for the women—were complete before 4 p.m., New York time. Television producers could have presented the entire competition at the top of the first hour. Instead, they curiously strung the edited version out between 9 p.m. and midnight, pretended that it was live, and in the end omitted the gold-medal ceremonies of the U.S. athletes.³

Nearly all the competitions covered in this book were completed by early afternoon on the east coast. The winners were known; the upsets were on the record; the favorites who met expectations were breathing a sigh of relief. Helen Maroulis’s stunning defeat of three-time Japanese medalist Yoshida happened at 1:15 EST. Clarissa Shields completed her record-setting double-gold in boxing at 2:00 EST. There was time.

Telling these stories is not intended to take anything away from the amazing accomplishments of Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Serena Williams, or others who claimed the biggest headlines. Serena’s four Olympic gold medals will help cement her stature as the best female tennis player of all time. Simone Biles has been described as the greatest gymnast seen in a generation, and, if she continues to compete, might be considered the greatest of all time. Michael Phelps set records that will probably never be broken. Those Olympic performances were a joy to behold and a reason for national celebration. But it’s time to share our attention with other American athletes that haven’t gotten the same spotlight. For every Phelps and Biles, there are another dozen athletes whose achievements are covered with no more than a sentence or a photo in passing.

Their stories are begging to be told.

II. Why the Olympics Still Matter


Faster. Higher. Stronger.

—The Olympic motto

In the 18 months since the closing ceremonies finished, interest in the Olympics has naturally waned. Paris has been awarded the 2024 Games and Los Angeles in 2028, even among grumblings that the Olympics have become too expensive, too bloated, and too commercial. These criticisms—like the Games themselves—are also cyclical. Launching the modern Olympics back in 1896 was an uphill battle for Pierre de Coubertin and his allies, and every Olympics since has had its share of naysayers, scandals, and problems. Consider the criticism heaped upon every similar endeavor—whether it’s the United Nations, the European Union, or even the World Cup of Soccer—and it’s easy to see that international ventures are fraught with difficulty.

All the more reason that the Olympics should and will continue. All the more reason that the Olympics are needed. All the more reason to tell these stories now, even after the memories have faded.

In July 2016, prior to the start of the Games, I wrote an essay in my weekly blog on why the Olympics matter (the full post is reprinted in the Appendix). Here is the opening paragraph:

The world needs a moment. After a turbulent year of crises and tragedies and an expletivey summer of political carping, we’re all exhausted. We need some kittens and Corgies and rainbows and plenty of stories of humans helping each other, overcoming odds in order to triumph and—lookee here—we have some of that coming right up. Sixteen days of glory should be just what we need.

That was written during the grueling election season of 2016. The roller coaster of 2017 has been even worse. As the year has rolled by, Americans are even more at odds with each other and in turmoil over government actions and current events. The world still needs a moment. One year later, two years later, times will be no different. The world always seems to have a year of turbulence; the world always needs some glory.

The World Definitely Needs a Moment

The Olympics were created by the Greeks to honor their gods and celebrate the human spirit of striving and achievement. Those city-states of 700 B.C. also slipped in and out of war, endured economic challenges, and suffered political upheaval. When Pierre de Coubertin in the 1890s championed the idea of rekindling the games as a way to promote the spirit of peace, financial hardship and armed conflicts had been rippling across the globe for decades. He wanted to promote friendship across nation and individual, to bring fractured alliances back together, and to display the best of the human spirit of endeavor through sport.

Right from the beginning there were critics, proving that the spirit of bitching within and across nations is also timeless. The clash between the grand vision of harmony and the ruthless pursuit of winning brought out poor sportsmanship and national arguing. Nothing has changed: neither the spirit of kvetching nor the need to celebrate the best of us. Even today, nearly a year after the Games have completed, the largest stories are of the stadiums in Brazil sitting empty, of unfulfilled promises and officials being prosecuted for bribery scandals.⁵ Yet, the memories that these athletes created are no less cherished. De Coubertin’s words just don’t tarnish:

The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

III. Why I Wrote this Book

So, the Olympics matter, but the typical 2016 coverage concentrated on a handful of few marquee athletes. This book recounts stories of a dozen more who didn’t get the same attention. But why these athletes, and why did I decide to tell their stories?

If you can’t tell by now, I am rather passionate about the Olympics. I’ll admit it; I am an Olympics junkie. Since Munich and Montreal, since the triumphs at Lake Placid and Los Angeles, I have devoted weeks in those every-four-year summers to watching, taping, analyzing, agonizing over, and cheering on the athletes. I’m the certifiable nutjob who ordered the entire Triple Play for Barcelona 1992. I still watch copies of Bud Greenspan’s 16 Days of Glory series, some purchased on eBay and some grainy downloads from TV. I have VCR tapes—Beta tapes—full of competitions from Seoul 1988. I don’t even own a Betamax anymore.

I knew who Jordan Burroughs, Tori Bowie, and Missy Franklin were before the Rio Games even started.⁷ I downloaded the app onto my tablet so I could watch other events during the network television commercials. I even patched in that feed through Chromecast in an Oregon hotel room so I could watch the Helen Maroulis/Saori Yoshida match live before going out with my family on our planned vacation. I was still watching competitions I had missed on the feed for a week after the closing ceremonies trash had been hauled away. That’s when I decided to write this book.

The Unheralded Young Wrestler from Woodbine, Maryland

Kyle Snyder was the athlete who was the tipping point for me. As I systematically went down the list of events to watch what had not been shown in prime-time, I eventually came to wrestling. Both my children wrestled in middle school, so this little-known sport has a personal connection to me. Olympic wrestling is fun to watch. It can be both strategic and dramatic, with action happening faster than the eye can follow.

I will also admit to an American bias. Much as I can be persuaded that all Olympic results can be interesting, I still prefer cheering on the Red, White, and Blue. As I scanned through the wrestling events, I was looking for U.S. athletes who medaled. I had seen the women already, and I hadn’t heard about any men who medaled, other than knowing that the highly touted Jordan Burroughs had failed in his quest for a second gold.

Because I hadn’t heard of any other gold medalist wrestlers, I didn’t think there were any. When I came across Snyder and the 97kg class, I scanned through the matches, only half-interested. I’d never heard his name mentioned, so he must not have medaled. He won his first match, then the second. In the semifinals, as he beat another more experienced, highly regarded peer, I thought, Wow, he’s going to the finals, he must win the silver medal!

Suddenly, there he was, winning the gold medal, with as much panache and strength as any other wrestler, and frankly any other athlete I had seen. Quietly assertive in his red U.S.A. singlet, this 20-year-old stood among a handful of giant balding men with that medal around his neck, grinning like a teenager. And I thought, Why have I never heard of this guy? This is a travesty! Somebody oughta do something!

Somebody Has to Tell their Stories

Now, admittedly, neither I nor anyone should be the sole arbiter of newsworthiness. But, if there were 1750 hours of Olympics on television, I had watched or skimmed through 1600 hours of it. Surely, with all the swimming heats and preliminary track races and practice dives and rhythmic gymnasts…surely, there must have been time to show the four-minute gold-medal match of an American? I felt strongly that this was a wrong that ought to be righted, that somebody should take it upon themselves to tell these stories. So, I started writing.

A year or so later, here we are. Frankly, this project might have been far-fetched, for someone without a sportswriter’s background. I haven’t published books like this before, and I don’t have a unique academic or personal expertise in any particular sport. My key credentials are things like being able to describe in detail the 1988 diving competitions where Greg Louganis medaled after hitting his head in the springboard preliminaries, or knowing that Michael Johnson’s 1996 world record sprint in the 200 was 19.32 seconds.

I love the Olympics. I have profound respect for the sacrifices these athletes have made. I hope that comes through in their stories. After all, who better than a fan to give proper homage to these achievements? Not just a fan of any individual sport, but of all of them, of the very idea of sport. It might as well be me.

IV. A Dozen Triumphs

The 12 stories I chose to highlight here are of American athletes who made a unique mark in the 2016 Games. Either they were the first to achieve a certain distinction, were unusually dominant despite limited resources and publicity, or triumphed under adverse circumstances. Each of their stories could have taken an entire book, and many may have life stories in the works.⁸ For the sake of telling a handful rather than concentrating on only one tale, I have included less than I might. However, each chapter tries to give them their due with an abbreviated biography of the athlete, rules from these lesser-known events, and a detailed breakdown of the tournament.

The stories include:

Combat sport triumphs:

Kayla Harrison, the first American judoka to win two gold medals

Kyle Snyder, the youngest freestyle wrestler to win a gold medal

Helen Maroulis, a freestyle wrestler, who upset Saori Yoshida, a Japanese legend

Claressa Shields, the first American boxer to win two gold medals

Track & Field:

Michelle Carter, first American woman to win the shot put

Matthew Centrowitz, Jr., the first American man to win the 1500 in over a hundred years


Kristin Armstrong, the first cyclist to three-peat as a gold medalist and the oldest gold medalist in cycling

Connor Fields, the first American to win a gold medal in BMX

Dominant Teams on the Water:

The American women’s rowing eight, who won their third gold medal in a row after being undefeated in 11 years

The American women’s water polo team, who won a second gold medal and has now medaled in every Games since water polo was opened for women

Breakthrough Bronze Medalists:

Kim Rhode, the only athlete to medal in six consecutive Olympics and to medal on five continents

The American women’s sabre fencing team, which included Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American athlete to compete in a hijab

Altogether, these dazzling dozen Olympians represent a broad segment of the nation—multiple ages, regions, and cultural backgrounds—a true cross-section of America. They forged their paths in unique ways, although reliving their stories also serves to highlight the similarity of the Olympic experience. Peeling these competitions down to their core reveals those similarities.

The Anatomy of Every Olympic competition

All Olympic competitions share certain characteristics:

There is always a winner and a loser, and the loser wanted to win just as much as the victor. The loser’s story will be just as interesting.

There will be a person who comes in third, and one who will just miss the podium, which is why third is almost as good as winning. The biggest disappointment for an athlete is not coming in second, but coming in fourth.

There were preliminaries and qualifying rounds before the Games that were just as rigorous and part of the years of struggle that allowed these athletes to make it to the Olympics in the first place. Everyone participating has won something.

All athletes have overcome some kind of injury. Even the 16-year-olds.

There are new, inexperienced, butterfly-stomached phenoms and veterans who fight aging and disappointment to give it one last try. The Games have a built-in four-year interval that creates this pattern. In an Appendix essay, I discuss this Four-Year Interval in some detail.

There is a moment of winning, of triumph. That will be always be a moment of defeat for someone else.

Families and nations of the medalists will be bursting with pride, as well they should. The most devoted will always be in the stands, cheering like crazy.

There will be three winners in each sport. There will be athletes thrilled to represent their country and athletes happy just to be there. There will be absurd examples of cheating and gut-wrenching examples of good sportsmanship. There will be exhilaration, heartbreak, teamwork, risks that pay off, sacrifices that are all worth it, eye-popping performances, disappointment, camaraderie, and patriotic tears.

These dozen stories, out of the hundreds that could be told of triumph and struggle, will continue to remind us of Citius-Altius-Fortius. They will illustrate how far and how fast we have come, how high we can reach, and how strong we can be.

Part One

Combat sports are both on the rise and on the wane in the United States. Boxing was once a major marquee sport, though not as much these days as team sports have pushed boxing to pay-per-view, and televised combat sports consist mostly of mixed martial arts. The Olympics, though, still host a wide range of combat sports just as it has from ancient Greek times. A battle between skilled opponents, fighting one-on-one for bragging rights, is as old as sport itself.

The Olympic sports include boxing, freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, judo, and taekwondo. Karate will be added as a demonstration sport for Tokyo 2020. Aside from pitting single competitors against each other on a mat, these sports have several elements in common.

Competitors are divided by weight class.

There is an in-bounds and an out-of-bounds area.

The match consists of a limited time period subdivided into smaller rounds.

Referees start and stop the action as well as assessing penalties or disqualifications. Athletes are penalized for avoiding offense, i.e. non-aggression.

Judges award points.

A bracketing system moves athletes through rounds against each other. Highly ranked athletes may receive a bye or a skipped round while other, lesser qualified, athletes fight each other. In some cases, a competitor who loses to an eventual finalist may get a chance at a bronze through a repechagematch.

While there are commonalities, there are key differences as well:

Competitors are divided by weight, but not height. In boxing and taekwondo, extra arm or leg reach can allow a taller athlete to score without being touched. However, in wrestling and judo, where points are scored for making an opponent fall, a shorter athlete with a lower center of gravity has an advantage.

Boundary rules vary. Boxing takes place inside a physical ring, so out-of-bounds rules don’t apply. In judo, going out-of-bounds stops the action but does not score points. In contrast, wrestlers score major points for pushing opponents out-of-bounds.

Boxing and taekwondo award points for blows to the head, while wrestling and judo consider them penalties. All the combat sports have penalties for blows to the groin, i.e. below the belt, though the penalty of a referee warning is often less severe than the blow itself.

No matter the subtleties among the rules, all combatants rely on two things: strategy and conditioning. The unique rules of their sport allow them to put together a game plan that is tailored to their opponent’s weaknesses. Success is rarely about brute strength. At the same time, though the matches seem short, pushing against someone roughly your size for four minutes requires physical toughness. Most gold-medal matches are intense affairs with low scoring between nearly equal champions of country or continent.

Aside from those basic similarities and differences, every single match has its own rhythm. Every single athlete blazes his or her path to triumph through adversity and rivalry. Every combatant defines his or her path to dominance in a singular way.

Chapter One:

Eight Minutes, Four Seconds - Judo

Kayla Harrison

Gold Medal

Judo Women’s 78kg

Eight minutes, four seconds. Remember those numbers.

When you come to understand what Kayla Harrison accomplished in Rio on August 11, 2016, you will appreciate how dominant a performance it was.

It was the 60-point game that Kobe Bryant scored on his last day with the Lakers. It was a no-hitter in the World Series. It was a hat trick in the World Cup, three interceptions in the Super Bowl, or 40 aces in a Wimbledon Final. Eight minutes four seconds was an annihilation of the competition in a sport where Americans are not the heavy favorites. Yet, while coverage was showered on other celebrity athletes—Phelps, Williams, and Walsh-Jennings—Harrison quietly made history in what one online journalist labeled the most thunderously badass performance in Olympic judo.¹⁰

The Rio gold medal in women’s 78kg judo was Kayla Harrison’s second, the first time ever that a judoka from the United States had won two golds. But it was not achieved without struggle.

Gold, the Prequel

August 2, 2012

Finals: Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain, ranked #42

On the first Thursday of the London Olympics in 2012,¹¹ the final match for the Judo Women’s 78kg gold medal is the next to last bout after a long day of competition. London’s monstrous ExCel Center, a 480,000 square foot hall at the riverfront normally used for conventions, has hosted a blizzard of matches throughout the day. All eyes are now on a single mat. The spectator din is enormous because hometown favorite Gemma Gibbons of Great Britain is also in the final. Gibbon’s semifinal victory over the odds-on favorite, the tough French World Champion Audrey Tcheumeo, was a surprise. Gibbons is ranked only 42nd in the world but had outlasted Tcheumeo’s assaults, perhaps boosted by the venue. The raucous crowd cheers wildly as she walks out of the tunnel.

Even more of a surprise is 22-year-old Kayla Harrison, whose path to this point has been more difficult than most. Harrison started in judo at age six, encouraged by her mother, Jeanie Yazell, who also has a black belt. By age 15, Harrison had won two national championships. However, her coach, Daniel Doyle, had begun sexually abusing her a few years earlier. Winning matches publicly, she was suffering privately. Eventually, the abuse was discovered and reported to authorities, and, after testifying against Doyle, Harrison saw her tormentor sent to prison for a decade.

Those teenage years must have felt like the endless judo match from hell. Judo strategy requires an individual to stand her ground: constantly look for an opening, constantly defend against a grab, stay centered in balance, look for leverage, and last until the buzzer. Harrison must have gone into that stance against her abuser for days and months on end. Stand your ground until time is called. At long last, in this most personal of contests, someone had finally called time.

Yet the damage from someone she viewed as a mentor was severe. Harrison remained depressed and, at times, suicidal after the trial. How would she ever be able to develop a deep trust with another coach, let alone compete? Her mother contacted the Pedros, who run a world-class training gym in Massachusetts. Jimmy Pedro Jr. himself is a U.S. judo legend. He is the only athlete to have won two Olympic medals in judo, bronzes in Atlanta (1996) and Athens (2004)—the only athlete before Harrison, that is. Harrison agreed to move to the outskirts of Boston to train with Jimmy and his father, and the move was a lifesaver.

Her outlook turned around. With her confidence restored, Harrison set her sights on London and blossomed under new techniques, rising from top junior ranks to winning the Worlds in 2010 and coming in third in 2011—to Audrey Tcheumeo. Tcheumeo’s name will continue to circle around Harrison’s throughout her Olympic tenure.

Here in London, Harrison’s courageous story has been widely reported, which has brought both positive press to help other survivors of abuse and a negative distraction to the competition at hand. As an American with a touching backstory, Harrison’s narrative has been framed in terms of the medal potential for the country. The commentators have spoken of national hope for a gold medal. However, in a sport largely ignored in comparison to the perennial favorites, judo hasn’t received the focus of diving, gymnastics, or swimming.

Regardless of who might be watching or why cameras might be turned her way, Harrison has had her own agenda, her own demons to purge. So, here she is on the largest of stages, facing an opponent just as determined who has a hometown crowd on her side.

Gibbons is listed at 5’8", the same height as Harrison, though a slim build and calm demeanor make her seem taller. She enters to the cheers like a proper Brit, shoulders back, with a stiff upper lip and a splash of extra dignity. Harrison bounces around as if trying to dispel nerves through her feet. Both are underdogs; both are happy to be in the final; both desperately want to win for their own personal reasons. The five-minute match begins.¹²

In a display of cat-and-mouse judo, the opponents pounce and dodge for a minute. Harrison is the more aggressive, grabbing at Gibbons and trying to shift her hips in for a throw. The throw is her go-to move, though Gibbons slithers out of range and out of the circle, out from danger repeatedly. Harrison’s attacks force Gibbons to drop to the floor, but the American seems unable to determine how to turn it into a score.

Finally, a grab and throw leads to a side toss—not the full, dramatic ippon, but a lesser quality takedown. Harrison is granted a yuko. She goes back to work, and Gibbons continues to move her around the circle trying to turn the American. Pedro’s voice is audible, matside. Be careful of just turning. She goes behind you.

Gibbons, with that 42nd world ranking, begins to show her inexperience, seemingly at a loss at how to respond to Harrison’s swift, short attacks. The crowd chants Gemma, Gemma, but Gemma looks perplexed. Her gi comes unbelted and her hair floats out of her ponytail, while Harrison’s belt stays intact, a sign that she has barely been touched. At mid-match, Harrison manages to snag the Brit’s arm and trips her, but the throw is again only from the side, and another yuko is awarded. Down on the ground, Pedro is yelling at her, Finish her. But Harrison doesn’t seem to know how to budge her face-down opponent.

The yuko is waived off as Harrison continues to attack. She manages a similar set of tactics—grab the arm, sweep a leg, throw from the side—and another yuko is awarded with a minute to go. The score is 0 0 2 to 0 0 0. The hometown favorite starts to realize that her time is running out and takes a few extra seconds to retie her belt, trying to puzzle out a working strategy. Gibbon starts to flail at her opponent with arms and legs, but it is now Harrison’s turn to bounce toward the outside. As the two grapple with time ticking down, Coach Pedro’s voice breaks in distinctly. Do not turn your back on her for the next 15 seconds, and you will be Olympic Champion.

Harrison does as she is told. And, just like that, time is called.

Her final move pulls both women to the ground, and Harrison turns Gibbons over with her feet, almost for show. But she can stop now; the match is over. She

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