Kayla Harrison

Kayla Harrison recalls Ronda Rousey’s judo exit, ponders future in MMA

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Many eyes turned at Pedro’s Judo Center during practices in 2009. When Ronda Rousey and Kayla Harrison faced off, it was the round to watch.

“I actually miss it,” Harrison said last week. “I miss having a girl to train with who hates to lose as much as me.”

Rousey, now an undefeated UFC champion, became the first U.S. Olympic women’s judo medalist when she took bronze in 2008.

Harrison, then 18 years old, was also at the Beijing Olympics, only as a training partner for the 21-year-old Rousey because the U.S. did not earn a spot in Harrison’s weight division for those Games.

To prep, Rousey and Harrison went to a camp in relative seclusion at the home of their coach’s father off Arlington Pond in Salem, N.H.

“No Internet,” Harrison said. “His TV sucked. It was very much Rocky style.”

They fought in the mornings outside, shaded from the July sun by a tarp normally used to cover a car.

“I had that age advantage, even though she was heavier,” said Rousey, who fought in Olympic judo one weight class lighter than Harrison (about 17 pounds). “I always beat her.”

Then they ran around the lake. When they got back, Rousey and Harrison descended into the cellar and lifted weights.

“It was a catfight every day in the dojo,” said their coach, Jimmy Pedro.

“It works,” Harrison said. “I did the same thing before London.”

Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic judo gold medal at the London 2012 Games. That came three years after her last training bout with Rousey.

In 2009, Rousey made a brief comeback to judo one year after capturing Olympic bronze, Harrison and Pedro said. After two months training at Pedro’s Judo Center in Massachusetts, and a few days training in Japan, Rousey unexpectedly quit and flew home to California, leading to her switch to mixed martial arts.

Rousey has said Pedro disapproved of MMA.

“He pretty much told me to go [bleep] myself,” Rousey said in 2013, according to USA Today. “He didn’t want to help me.”

“I’m not extremely happy with some of the comments that have been made in USA Today,” Pedro said in New York last week. “It didn’t go down like they quoted. I wish Ronda well in her MMA career. I didn’t tell her to bleep off. We didn’t leave on bad terms.”

They left on unfortunate terms, the way Pedro and Harrison tell it. Rousey had returned to training with Pedro’s judo group for two months in 2009 when she accepted an offer, with Pedro’s blessing, to spend a year training in Japan, the birthplace of the sport.

Some of America’s best judokas spent blocks in Japan, including the two-time Olympic bronze medalist Pedro. Rousey would receive $40,000 for one year with housing and food paid for, plus two trips back to the U.S. to visit family, Pedro said.

Harrison and others from the Massachusetts group went with Rousey for her move-in to Japan in 2009. Here’s what Pedro said happened:

“They did a big to-do for her. They rolled out the red carpet, had a big press thing for her. It was very important to the Japanese that they had an American coming to live and train with them for a year. After four days, [Rousey] decided this isn’t for me. Rather than talk to the Japanese, politely ask for her way out of it, she just packed her bags and left. The Japanese were very upset. That’s not their culture. They don’t understand an American just taking off. That’s just not protocol. They shunned the rest of our team and ignored our team. They [the other U.S. judokas] were there for another six weeks. They didn’t give them any rides, didn’t pay attention to them. [The Japanese] were really pissed off.”

“This is all probably in [Rousey’s] book that’s coming out soon,” Harrison joked in a separate interview. “She moved home, and I didn’t hear from her for a long time after that.”

Pedro said he’s occasionally seen Rousey since 2009 and wished her luck in person. He called her an icon and the most recognizable female athlete in the world in an interview last week.

“I knew she’d be successful [in MMA],” Pedro said. “She got a level of judo living at our place for six years that no other female on the planet, other than Kayla, has gotten.”

Harrison is often asked if she might pursue MMA. She’s received offers. Even Rousey has brought it up as the former roommates talk on the phone or text.

“We go back and forth,” Harrison said, adding that Rousey gave her MMA contacts if she wanted to get started. “It’s pretty tempting at times. Who doesn’t want to be famous? Who doesn’t want to be rich? Who doesn’t yearn for all of those things at some point in their life? But I just don’t know if it’s for me, quite honestly. I’m not as confident as Ronda in front of the media. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I’m not a showboater. I don’t think I would be very good at putting on a show or talking trash.”

Rousey, who is quite good at putting on a show and talking trash, admires Harrison’s attitude.

“Kayla very much cared — practice, competition, she had that deep caring about how she did,” Rousey said last month. “What really made her stand out the most was how important it was to her, to see how passionate she was about it.”

Harrison can’t fight in MMA at her Olympic weight. Her judo weight class is a maximum 171 pounds. The highest women’s MMA division caps at 145.

But Rousey competed in Olympic judo in one division lower than Harrison and has dominated in MMA since dropping 15-20 pounds in competition weight. So it’s possible.

And Harrison can be buoyed by the fact that she closed the gap on Rousey in their head-to-head sessions from that pre-2008 Olympic camp to those two months in 2009 when they were so competitive that everybody in the dojo had to watch.

“Who knows, maybe after Rio, [MMA] is what I’ll want to do,” Harrison said.

Kayla Harrison’s comeback from collapse, Brazilian rival

Kayla Harrison, back from collapse, rivaled by Brazilian for repeat gold in Rio

Kayla Harrison, Mayra Aguiar
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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.”

Rio 2016 Olympics day-by-day events to watch