NEW YORK — Kayla Harrison unraveled from her bed one day in spring 2013, took a step and collapsed.
“I finally needed to call a doctor,” she said.
Back in March 2012, Harrison heard her left knee snap while training in Japan and thought she partially tore the MCL. Five months after that, she became the first American to win an Olympic judo gold medal.
Following the media tour and the parties, she returned to training with coach Jimmy Pedro in Massachusetts in early 2013. The knee pain returned, too.
“It would bug me, bug me, bug me,” daily, recalled Harrison as she sat in the lobby of the New York Athletic Club overlooking Central Park last week.
Until that spring day, when she fell, relented and saw Boston Celtics team physician Dr. Brian McKeon. Harrison found that a ligament smaller than her MCL was actually torn instead. And her knee had been subluxing, basically dislocating in and out for a year without her knowledge.
“I had a pothole in my knee,” she said.
Harrison underwent reconstructive knee surgery in June 2013, knowing it would keep her out of competition for a year, if she decided to continue with the sport.
What is wrong with me, Harrison thought to herself. Why do I keep putting myself through this? I have everything that I want. A World Championship. An Olympic title.
“But judo is sort of the love of my life,” the 24-year-old reasoned.
At the Olympics, Harrison leaped after the gold-medal match into the arms of fiance Aaron Handy, with whom several years ago she confided her story of being sexually abused by a former coach as a teen. Harrison and Handy have since parted ways.
Harrison talked going into London of retiring if she won gold. She wanted to become a firefighter.
But now, motivated by the surgery setback, Harrison is making what will likely be her final Olympic run. She said she can join judo legends with a victory in Rio de Janeiro next summer. She may have to go through one of the host nation’s biggest Olympic stars to do it.
“When you’re a fighter, it’s just sort of in you,” Harrison said. “Someone breaking my leg in half and putting it back together is definitely a challenge.”
“The comeback has started. #Day1,” was posted on Harrison’s Instagram following the surgery.
She spent six weeks in a straight leg brace. Her apartment had stairs, so she stayed with Pedro’s father for the first two months because she could barely walk.
“You eat and watch Netflix,” she said. “A lot of Netflix.”
Harrison also took Harvard Extension classes. One was in creative writing, Introduction to Memoir, which sparked her to restart work on her own book, with Dave Wedge, who co-wrote an account of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that is reportedly the basis of an in-the-works film.
Harrison was back on the mat training in early 2014 but struggled to regain knee strength.
“A lot of crying, a lot of pain,” Pedro said. “She’s always cried, right? I think she cried more out of frustration that after her knee injury that she may never be healthy again, as a young girl who just wishes she could compete at 100 percent.”
The 2014 World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, marked her fifth competition since returning from the surgery.
“She wasn’t ready,” Pedro said.
Harrison reached the 78-kilogram semifinals, relying on her instincts, mental strength and the gold-medal confidence of knowing she could beat anybody on her best day.
She drew Brazilian Mayra Aguiar in the semifinals. The two have a history.
Harrison defeated Aguiar in the final to win her only World Championship in 2010. She beat Aguiar again in the London Olympic semifinals, what Pedro called the toughest match of that tournament, since Aguiar was ranked No. 1.
This time in Chelyabinsk, Aguiar put Harrison away en route to a World Championship. The Brazilian’s loudly yelling coach was kicked out mid-match by the referee.
Harrison came away disappointed with bronze and a career head-to-head with Aguiar split at 6-6, which Harrison was reminded of during a late January trip to Brazil.
Local media sat them down for a TV show where they watched that Worlds match together and conversed about it.
Aguiar speaks English. She will be one of Brazil’s most hyped athletes at the Rio Games, given the nation has won three gold medals combined across all sports at each of the last two Summer Olympics.
Harrison saw Aguiar’s face on a bus during the Brazil trip and estimated one million children participate in judo in the nation.
Pedro would like as much pressure on Aguiar as possible going into the Olympics. And as little on Harrison’s shoulders.
“I’d rather [Harrison] take a silver or bronze again at this [year’s] Worlds rather than win it,” Pedro said of the Astana, Kazakhstan, competition coming in August. “Mentally, [World champions] go into the Olympics defending your title as opposed to taking it from others.”
Harrison won three straight competitions in December in Tokyo, February in Düsseldorf, Germany, and March in Tbilisi, Georgia.
“Technically, she’s still not where she was going into London,” Pedro said. “But she’s more experienced, more poised as a fighter, more confident. She knows she’s one of the best girls in the world now, whereas before there was a question.”
But Aguiar, who is one year younger, was not at any of those tournaments won by Harrison. And she, like Harrison, underwent surgeries after the London Olympics — shoulder, elbow and knee for the Brazilian.
At Rio 2016, Harrison could become the first non-Asian woman to successfully defend an Olympic judo title.
“Maybe I really could be one of the greatest of all time,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to be a legend, right?”
She will be 26 years old in 2016 and, probably she said, finish her judo career in Rio. Her only reason for continuing would be for the setting of the 2020 Olympics — Tokyo. Japan created judo, and her World Championship in 2010 was won there.
“It would be like winning the World Series here,” Harrison said. “But I’ll be almost 30 years old. I don’t know if my body will be able to handle another four years.”