Monday, April 11, 2011

Hail the conquering hero! Kayla Harrison wins the world judo championships, prepares for 2012 Olympics.

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When Kayla Harrison stepped on the mat in Tokyo in mid-September 2010, it had been 11 years since the United States produced a world judo champion and 26 years since that champion was a woman. The pressure might have overwhelmed a lesser judoka but not Harrison. The 20-year-old bagged the United States' fourth world-championship gold medal in judo.

But that victory is only the tip of the iceberg. By the end of 2010, Harrison had struck gold at five world-cup events that year, establishing herself as one of the strongest grapplers on the planet.


Originally from Middletown, Ohio, Harrison was enrolled in judo class by her mother, who'd studied the style in college. Her mom's reason was an old one: "She wanted me to learn self-defense," Harrison said.

The girl got serious about competition and moved to the Boston area when she was 16 to become part of Team Force at Pedro's Judo Center. Under the direction of two-time Olympic medalist and 1999 world judo champ Jimmy Pedro, she met with much success. The keys to her wins, Pedro said, were proper preparation and a training schedule that permitted her to peak at precisely the right time.

"One of the things that contributed to her success is the Pedro Judo Center system," Pedro said. "We focus on preparing athletes for the biggest events of their careers." The center is not the largest one out there--Pedro usually trains 25 to 30 athletes, while European and Japanese facilities often boast 100 or more. However, it has a track record of helping young athletes rise to the top of the ranks in judo.

Pedro runs the program, but he receives extensive help from his father, Jimmy Pedro St., the man who transformed him into a world champion. The son doesn't shy away from giving credit to his father for the success of the program and its martial artists, including Harrison. "His passion is training serious athletes for the biggest events," he said. And train is what Harrison does.


She typically practices judo twice a day. She engages in plenty of randori, although her morning sessions have more drilling. She runs every day--sometimes longer jaunts with a few sprints mixed in and sometimes short two-milers with 15 to 20 sprints. She also does circuit training twice a week and heavy lifting once a week.

A critical aspect of Harrison's preparation is peaking, which Pedro said is difficult to get right but essential for success at world-class competitions. He has her concentrate on high-volume training during the months before a major event, and as it approaches, he has her back off the volume while increasing the intensity. That ensures sufficient rest periods are in her schedule.

Harrison said the shift usually happens a couple of weeks before a tournament. "We slow down the randori," she said. "We do a ton of drilling, practicing our throws. We keep training but also rest our bodies."


Pedro pointed out that American judoka face an uphill battle whenever they're pitted against competitors from other nations--in Europe, particularly--because they're professional athletes. That's why he treats his judoka as pros, giving them a stipend and constantly reminding them that winning at judo is their job.

That mental conditioning no doubt helped Harrison win the Junior World Championships in 2008. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite enough to enable her to do the same at the 2009 World Judo Championships, where she didn't even place.

"What a lot of people don't know is she was sick," Pedro said. "She had mono and didn't go to Europe and didn't compete in January or February 2009, and then was injured in March."

In the end, it was a lack of experience that held her back. "She didn't have any fights where she had to gut it out," Pedro said. "She didn't have the experience."


So what was different for Harrison in 2010 as she headed for the World Judo Championships? "I had 80 really tough matches" she said. "Brazil, El Salvador, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Japan--I went everywhere."

"We sent her everywhere with a coach who adjusted her technique as she competed," Pedro added. That experience, during which she went toe-to-toe with the best, ingrained the belief that she could win.

"The mental game is a huge part of her judo and her success" Pedro said.

Offered as evidence: Harrison competed in two international tournaments after the World Championships. She flew to Uzbekistan and came home with a silver medal, which is not quite what a newly crowned world champion expects. A week later, she fought in England, where she dominated the field, throwing four opponents and winning the gold at the World Cup--even though she was ill.

"I think it gave me back a little confidence I might have lost in Uzbekistan," Harrison said. "It showed me I can continue to win."


As with many elite competitors, the mental game for Harrison manifests itself in routines that start weeks before the big day. "Something I really believe in is Visualization," she said. Long before she sets foot on the mat at an international meet, she imagines herself beating her opponents.

"I started visualizing for the World Championships in July, and every night, the visions would turn into dreams, and then they became more and more real to me;' Harrison said. "So by the time I got to the World Championships, I had already won the tournament dozens of times in my head."

Routines Harrison runs through on tournament day include listening to Eminem music during her warm-up, wearing lucky pieces of clothing and being the first woman in her division to weigh in.

They may sound quirky, but they work for her, and with any luck, they'll continue working for the next two years, which should be sufficient to see her through the 2012 Olympics.

Pedro is confident she has what it takes to win the gold, and with the right coaching, that's what she'll do. He plans to continue expanding her repertoire of techniques and "get her a ton more matches," he said.

With roughly two years to go, Harrison has plenty of time to internalize the teachings of the Pedro system and become America's best shot at winning its first gold medal in Olympic judo.

photos by robert reiff

Clay Morgan is a public-relations consultant and freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. He holds a third-degree black belt in judo and a black belt in jujutsu.

Source Citation
Morgan, Clay. "Hail the conquering hero! Kayla Harrison wins the world judo championships, prepares for 2012 Olympics." Black Belt Apr. 2011: 78+. General OneFile. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.
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