RIO de JANEIRO — Kayla Harrison is a very, very bad woman.
Bow in her direction. All her opponents do.
In one of the most thunderously awesome performances in Olympic judo history, Harrison on Thursday plundered the women’s 78kg (172 lbs) category to win a second straight Olympic gold.
Simply put, she dominated all day long. This was a no-doubter.
In the gold medal final match, ahead on penalties and with just six seconds to go, Harrison armbarred France’s Audrey Tcheumeo, a London 2012 bronze medalist, for the victory.
“I was,” Harrison said afterward, “fearless today.”
She also said, “Winning my first Olympic gold” in London in 2012, “I thought nothing would ever get better. But this is better.”
Her mother, 48-year-old Jeannie Yazell of Middletown, Ohio – a small town halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati – summed it up this way: “It was spectacular.”
Harrison’s medal gives the Americans two at the Rio 2016 tournament. Travis Stevens took silver in the men’s 81kg (178 lbs) class.
If two doesn’t sound like much, consider: There’s only one day left in judo’s Rio 2016 run, and the Americans are tied for fifth in the world.
For a little perspective:
The Russian Judo Federation runs to the tune of about $20 million annually. Brazil’s federation is maybe $14 million.
USA Judo’s annual budget is in the $1.4 million range. Of that $1.4 million, about $500,000 goes over to high-performance, meaning elite competitions like the Games.
Russia, with one day left, has three medals.
Brazil, two — one of which is a bronze in Harrison’s class, won Thursday by crowd favorite Mayra Aguiar.
“We can look at this two ways,” Jose Rodriguez, USA Judo’s chief executive, said after Thursday’s bouts were done.
“First, the return on our return on investment in our athletes is unbelievable.”
“No. 2, on the other hand,” he said, referring to the Russian and Brazilian revenues, “can you ever imagine if we had that kind of budget?
“We would control world judo.”
Instead, the American program has since the Beijing Games in particular steadily been building — sparked by Ronda Rousey, now the MMA star, the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic medal in judo, bronze in 2008 in the 70kg (154 lbs) category.
In London, Harrison became the first gold medalist.
The years since 2012 presented Harrison with any number of challenges. Her father died. She was frequently hurt.
“Like I’ve said before,” Harrison said late Thursday, “people don’t realize is that it is not just today, it’s the four years that led up to today.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve drilled all of those situations, thousands and thousands and thousands. I’ve fought every single girl here a million times. My coaches [the Pedros: Jim and his father, Big Jim] made me fight in every tournament when I was tired, when I was injured, when I didn’t want to fight. That’s the reason that I won today, is because of them. They made me mentally tough and they made me ready for any situation.”
Physically herself, mentally tough, Harrison was — as Rio approached — once again very bad.
“If we can get people to understand,” Rodriguez said, “that judo is first and foremost about teaching young people how to take a fall and get up and not get hurt — that is a transferrable skill” well beyond the tatami.
“In life,” he added, “you fall. You get up. And you continue the fight.”
Harrison rolled through Thursday’s draw. China’s Zhang Zhehui, Hungary’s Abigel Joo, the semifinal against Slovenia’s Anamari Velensek, then the final against France’s Tcheumeo — they all ended with ippon, or a perfect score, the equivalent of a knockout in boxing or a pin in wrestling.
The match against Tcheumeo brought things full circle for Harrison. The two had fought years before in the juniors.
But even the way Harrison walked out to the tatami, all swagger, all fearless, meant there was zero chance she could, or would, lose.
After, the obvious question came up: MMA?
Later, she said. No decisions for the moment.
For now, having done what she could in judo, back-to-back Olympic gold medals, Harrison said she was — as the baddest almost always are — full of “complete and utter peace.”