Massachusetts Judo Star Kayla Harrison Has a New Kind of Fight After Historic Olympics

The two-time Olympic gold medalist wants to tap out sexual abuse.

Kayla Harrison

Photo by Markus Schreiber / AP

Following her historic run at the 2016 Olympics, Massachusetts judo star Kayla Harrison now has a new kind of fight on her hands.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist is coming to Central Wharf Co. in Boston on Wednesday night, both to celebrate her achievements in Rio de Janeiro as well as to raise funds for her Fearless Foundation, which hopes to tap out sexual abuse. Harrison created the organization to educate people about the issue and to help survivors through the use of sport.

“It’s my passion now,” Harrison says. “Judo will always be my first love, but I really feel like this is my purpose in life and the reason why I’ve been given this platform.”

Prior to the 2012 Olympics in London, the decorated judoka revealed that she was sexually abused by her former coach while growing up in Ohio. The ordeal prompted Harrison to move to the Bay State 10 years ago in order to train in Wakefield with the legendary Jimmy Pedro, whom she credits for turning her into a successful athlete and person.

After sharing her story with the world, Harrison says she was inundated with speaking requests from charities and events that deal with sexual abuse. The Olympic champion decided to start her own foundation when she realized that there wasn’t really a global organization that dealt with this issue.

“The one thing I realized while doing all that is that there is no big foundation for survivors of sexual abuse,” Harrison says. “There’s a lot of really, really amazing organizations on a very local and regional level, but there’s no big one.”

Although the Fearless Foundation is still in its infancy, Harrison has big plans for the future. The Olympian wants to turn the organization into a network of sorts, connecting survivors with help and support systems through the charity’s website.

She’s also working with the U.S. Army to stamp out sexual abuse in the military and is writing a book on the issue, which she hopes will serve as an educational tool for students and young adults in Boston.

Harrison believes society needs more education on the topic, especially when it comes to its affect children.

“I really don’t think people understand the emotional toll it takes on a child,” she says. “Those are scars, those are wounds, that the child will have for life. It’s very, very damaging to your psyche, to your self-esteem, to a lot of different parts of being a child.”

In addition to her philanthropic efforts, Harrison has quite a bit on her plate for her post-Olympics career.

She’s currently writing a memoir with Boston Strong co-author Dave Wedge and has speaking engagements booked through next spring. There’s been talk that Harrison may follow in the footsteps of her former teammate Ronda Rousey by taking a leap into mixed martial arts as well.

Don’t expect to see her in the Octagon anytime soon, though, as the gold medal-winning judo star has criticized MMA in the past for promoting women who are “pretty” over those with serious skills in the cage. Harrison is leaving the door open, but has one condition for joining the sport.

“I think one scenario where I would do MMA would be a scenario where I was able to help change the sport and shape the sport into something that I consider more of sport and less of an entertainment,” she says. “If that kind of situation were ever to arrive, or if there was ever a company that was willing to work with me as much I’m willing to work with them, then that might happen. As of right now, that just hasn’t happened.”

For now, Harrison plans to devote her time to the Fearless Foundation and enjoying her latest gold medal win.

“I’m happy, I’m fulfilled with my judo career,” she says. “I’m excited to start the next chapter.”