By Maria Cheng
RIO DE JANEIRO — Kayla Harrison fought her way to judo history. Again.
Harrison, a native of Middletown, Ohio, became the first American to defend an Olympic judo title when she forced France’s Audrey Tcheumeo to tap out in the final of 78-kg competition at the Rio Games on Thursday. The victory in Brazil comes after she won the first judo gold for the U.S. in London.
With just six seconds left in an otherwise scoreless final, Harrison trapped Tcheumeo in a move that threatened to break her arm, forcing the Frenchwoman to submit and handing an automatic ippon victory to the American. Harrison won each of her fights Thursday with similar match-ending techniques.
Harrison’s coach, Jimmy Pedro, said her achievement was enormous, given that there have been no repeat Olympic judo champions in Rio, and there were none in London, either.
Harrison was in commanding form. She won her first two preliminary fights within minutes after pinning her opponents to the mat for 20 seconds.
“She’s on fire today, very confident and aggressive,” Pedro said.
The much anticipated final between Harrison and rival Myra Aguiar failed to materialize. The Brazilian fighter was beaten on penalties by Tchumeo in their semifinal bout.
“Judo is a sport where the margin of error is slim to none,” Pedro said. “For Kayla to (defend her title), really is epic.”
After Harrison won the Olympic title in London, she vowed to retire from the competitive grind of the Japanese martial art. She wanted to focus on other things, like becoming a Middletown-area firefighter.
Harrison endured years of sexual abuse by a previous judo coach from the Springboro area, who was later sentenced to 10 years in prison and expelled from USA Judo. She credits training at Pedro’s judo academy in Wakefield, Mass. for her recovery and has said she hopes her story will inspire other victims of sexual abuse to speak out.
Harrison becomes only the second American to take home two Olympic judo medals — after Pedro, himself a double bronze-medal winner. Having his protege follow in his footsteps is an “awesome” legacy, he said.
Pedro called Harrison a “true icon in the sport of judo,” and said he is hoping that she will now develop some legacy projects for judo and become a world ambassador for the sport.
The women’s bronze medals were won by Aguiar and Slovenia’s Anamari Velensek.