I open my eyes and try to discern if I feel any different. I don’t think I do. I still feel like Kayla. But I’m not. Today, I am a warrior. Today, I am unstoppable. Today — my first day competing in the Rio Olympics — I am fearless.
My bag is packed. My hair is braided. Breakfast at the cafe is quick and feels almost robotic. I’m not eating because I’m hungry; I’m eating so I can prepare for battle.
At the venue, I find a spot in the warm-up room. I can see the girl from China I’m going to fight in the first round. I know she can see me, but she won’t make eye contact. In the shoot, my coach Jimmy is in my ear. “It’s Kayla time,” he says, over and over again. I hear it. I feel it. Today is my day.
When the announcer calls my name, I am surprised by the enormous boo that begins to fill the arena. I have been booed before, but never like this. I step out onto the mat and push it out of my head.
It takes just 43 seconds to pin the Chinese girl, and the match is over. The ref awards me the win and the crowd boos again. I bow, shake hands, and run off the mat — all the way to the warm-up area in the back. As I’m running past the crowd, they are yelling things and jeering at me. I am glad I don’t speak Portuguese.
In the back, Jimmy and I look at each other and laugh. “Can you believe all the boos?” I ask. He just smiles.
“They’re scared for Mayra, Kayla. They don’t want her to have to fight you. Feed off of it. Use that energy to dominate. This entire stadium knows you are the best in the world, and that their girl can’t beat you.”
I smile. He’s right.
In my second match I have my bogey-girl, a woman from Hungary. I have only beaten her once, and that was four years ago in this very same event. A win means a spot in the semifinals.
We have trained for this. We have prepared for this. I am ready. And in less than two minutes, I have pinned her and won the match. The crowd boos again, but this time I let out a roar. This is my day.
In the semifinal, I face a Slovenian — a girl I fought barely a month ago at my last tournament in Hungary. We knew this match was coming. We are prepared as ever. Halfway through the match, I arm bar her and it’s over. I am in my second Olympic final.
It’s funny how easy it all seems. But the years and hours and countless training sessions in tears have prepared me for this day. Winning is easy. Preparing is the hard part.
We all thought that I would be fighting Mayra, the Brazilian girl. She is my rival and my biggest competition. But the girl from France, Adurey, has always been strong. It’s one of the reasons I spent a month in Europe this summer training with her; so that I would be prepared for any situation. It turns out my coaches were right again: Mayra loses to Audrey on penalties, and it will be the Audrey and I in the final.
The crowd boos again, but this time I let out a roar. This is my day.
It doesn’t even occur to me to be nervous. I guess people would think the pressure and the enormity of the moment might become overwhelming. But for me, these moments — when the whole world is watching me do what I love, when the culmination of 20 years of hard work, sweat, blood, tears, and so much more finally comes to a head — are what I live for.
So when I’m winning with eight seconds to go on the clock and I see her arm, of course I take it. I win all of my matches by ippon. I am the only judoka to do that in this Olympics.
I am one of only eight players to ever repeat, and the only one from America. Ever. And I have done it in in the best possible way: Fearlessly.
Images: Courtesy of Kayla Harrison (5), Reuters (1), Deadspin (1), USA Today (1), Ny Post Post (1), Team USA (1)