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Kayla Harrison talks overcoming post-Olympic depression, past sexual abuse

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Kayla Harrison sounds determined to put everything she has into finding MMA success, but the sport has already provided her with some much-needed motivation.

Following her triumph at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, Harrison, like many of her athletic peers, found herself adrift. It was her second straight time standing atop the podium at the Olympic games, the first being in London four years prior where she became the first American judoka to capture gold.

It was clear that her judo career was over. What wasn’t clear was what she could do next to stoke the competitive fires that still intensely burned.

“I didn’t know how it worked. I finished with the Olympics and I knew that I was done. I knew that I wasn’t going to go for another one and I was a little bit lost in my life,” Harrison said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I didn’t have a goal, I didn’t have something to wake up for. I was struggling. I was very depressed.

“Post-Olympic depression is a real thing. It’s sort of like — not coming home from war, because that’s much more traumatic — but when you’re a Type A person and you’re an Olympic athlete and you train your whole life for one moment, even if you win, that high is so high that when you come off of that, it’s like you’re low. You just don’t know what to do with yourself. So I was not training, I wasn’t working out, I was laying in bed all day everyday, watching stupid TV shows.”

Fast forward to 2018 and Harrison, 27, is poised to make her MMA debut with the Professional Fighters League on June 21 at the Chicago Theater in Chicago. She signed with the promotion back in 2016 when it was known as the World Series of Fighting, initially to work as a commentator while she trained and decided whether MMA was a viable option for her.

Harrison has since made her way down to American Top Team camp in Coconut Creek, Fla., where she trains under the tutelage of former World Extreme Cagefighting champion and now respected coach Mike Brown.

Though she struggled with finding a direction when she realized her judo days were over, she’s now completely focused on MMA and the opportunity to carve out an entirely new trail for herself.

“At the beginning, I was kind of skittish about it,” Harrison said. “It’s tough, too, because everyone always is like, ‘Well, look at Ronda (Rousey),’ you always have the comparison, so for me I didn’t know — it’s just so different from the judo world. But I’m kind of loving it. I’m kind of starting to become my own person in MMA, if that makes sense.

“In judo, I always had certain expectations, like everyone sort of is like, ‘This is Kayla. This is the golden girl. This is the poster child.’ And so I always felt like that’s who I had to be. In MMA, no one really knows me. Nobody cares about judo. It’s such a small sport in the U.S., so now just get to do what I want and be Kayla. And I’m enjoying it.”

Olympics: Judo
Kayla Harrison in judo competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Personal turmoil is nothing new for Harrison, who has been vocal about the sexual abuse she experienced in her youth. When she was eight years old, Harrison began working with judo coach Daniel Doyle, who would later involve her in a pattern of abuse that lasted until she was 16.

Even when she brought the issue to her mother, all she would say about Doyle was that he acted “inappropriate” to her and that she no longer wanted to train with him. Harrison kept the abuse secret until her and a friend were driving back from a tournament and she was asked what exactly had happened.

“Finally, I screamed it,” Harrison said. “We were in the car driving home from Florida and I just screamed, ‘He’s been … since I was 12.’ Or 10 or whatever; I don’t remember exactly what I said. So (my friend) pulled over the car and made me call my mom and I left her a voicemail and then she went to (Doyle’s) house actually with a baseball bat and was really upset and then beat up his truck and stuff, and she went to the police right away, of course.

“Daniel called me that night and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’ll take it all back. I don’t know what I was thinking,’ and he was just like, ‘You screwed up. One of us isn’t going to make it out of this alive.’

“Then the FBI got involved and he served 10 years in federal prison, he pleaded guilty, and he just got out actually right before the 2016 Olympics and I decided I had to write a book about all of it so that people hopefully don’t have to go through this.”

That book is the recently released Fighting Back, which is a collection of journal entries that Harrison wrote during her ordeal with Doyle that she describes as a “guideline, almost, for what sexual abuse is.” Proceeds of the sales are going towards her Fearless Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of abuse and providing education on the subject.

“It’s always hard when you talk about something like that, like I was terrified when the book came out if I’m being honest because it’s like my deepest, darkest secrets,” Harrison said. “It’s my journal entries. It’s from a time where I said, ‘God, please end my life.’ Those are things that are hard to share, for sure.

“So every time you give a speech or you talk about it, you feel like you’re giving yourself up a little bit, but then I think about when I had to write the book and I’m re-reading those journal entries of me as a 13-year-old girl begging God to end her life and I think about maybe there’s a little girl right now who’s doing that and maybe she’ll pick up this book and maybe she’ll know that she’s not alone and maybe she’ll know that she can get help. And that makes it all worth it.”

Harrison’s crusade is as relevant as ever in the wake of the recent scandal surrounding the USA Gymnastics squad. Last year, Larry Nassar, a physician who had worked with the team in some capacity starting in 1986, became the subject of hundreds of lawsuits accusing him of sexually abusing gymnasts. He was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison following federal and county convictions.

That awful revelation came as little surprise to Harrison, who points to Nassar and disgraced Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky as examples of high-profile cases that were allowed to go on for far too long. At the very least, she’s been encouraged by the solidarity of the USA Gymnastics team.

“It’s awful that there are so many of them, but it’s almost empowering to them because they’re not alone and they have each other and they can lean on each other and support each other and hopefully this is going to be the moment we look back and say things started to change,” Harrison said. “In sports, in our society, in the way we deal with child sexual abuse, in protocol, in legislature, in everything, in education. I hope.”

And so Harrison is doing her part, not just through her story and her foundation, but expanding her own platform from which she can spread her message. Asked what her ceiling is, Harrison said her goal is to be “the best there ever was”, though she laughed when asked if she thought she could beat someone like Cris Cyborg anytime soon. Harrison is more excited about the prospect of just meeting the UFC women’s featherweight champion first.

Should the two ever fight, it will mean that Harrison’s star has risen to the level that she hopes to reach, a goal that she sees directly benefiting a more important quest.

“What’s the best way Kayla can help her foundation?” Harrison said. “Be the most talked about athlete in the world.”