My story is one of perseverance, generosity, and humility.
I was born on July 2, 1990 in the Midwest–Middletown, Ohio, to be exact. While I now live in Florida, I proudly represent my Midwestern roots and can still taste my Mimi’s cooking and remember her freezer always being full of Graeter’s Ice Cream.
My introduction to the world of martial arts is quite simple, and maybe even comical? One day as a kid I saw a karate commercial on television and soon after started running around the house energetically breaking stuff, so my mom put me in judo, a sport she practiced in college as a form of self-defense.
Judo is a Japanese martial art practiced by judokas across the world. It took me a long time to become successful in judo. In fact, I didn’t win a match for my first three years. By the time I was in middle school, I was dedicated and disciplined, training twice a day, sometimes even three times a day. This focus and relentlessness helped me achieve many accolades as a youth, which culminated at the Junior World Championships in 2008. I became only the third American to win it. Building on that momentum, in 2010 I became the fourth American to win the Senior World Championships and it was especially noteworthy given this was only my second appearance at this highly competitive event and it was in the sport’s country of origin, Japan.
During the summer of 2012 in London, I became the first American to achieve the seemingly impossible. I won our country’s first gold medal in judo at the Olympics, defeating hometown hero Gemma Gibbons by two yukos. I was victorious again in 2016, besting Audrey Tcheuméo of France in Rio de Janeiro and earning my second Olympic gold medal. The years spent during my Olympic career will always be some of my fondest memories. The highs, the lows, and of course all the things people don’t see behind the scenes. I'm truly grateful for these experiences because they helped me learn that the journey is the reward.
After retiring from judo, I transitioned to the new yet familiar world of mixed martial arts, commonly known as MMA. I debuted with the Professional Fighters League in the 2018 season. The following year through dogged determination, I competed in and won the regular season playoffs and finals, which translates to four fights, to secure the 2019 Women's Lightweight Championship, conquering Larissa Pacheco. In 2021, I journeyed a similar path, and faced and dominated Taylor Guardado in the finals of the Women's Lightweight Championship, making me a 2x PFL World Champion.
In 2022, I stepped into the cage again with Larissa Pacheco…and lost, but what is life without failures, disappointments, and setbacks? They’ve all made me stronger and more resilient.
As a survivor of sexual abuse by my former childhood judo coach, it’s become my personal mission to shine a light on the darkness of this physical and psychological trauma. In 2013, I created the Fearless Foundation to enrich the lives of survivors firstly through education that empowers people who are victims to come forward and seek help and secondly through health and wellness to build both physical and emotional strength, resulting in increased self-confidence and mastery. In 2018, I was inspired to author Fighting Back to share my story and further educate people on how to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse as well as provide resources to help abused children recover and heal.
In recent years, my mental health has become of the utmost importance to me, especially as a mom. After adopting my niece Kyla and nephew Emery in 2020, my life changed forever in the best way possible. I’ve created a nurturing and safe environment for them to thrive, and I’m surrounded by love around the clock.
I find deep nourishment and fulfillment in helping and inspiring others. When I’m not in training for my next fight with the American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, I’m usually centering myself by praying, journaling, meditating, or feeding my pet emu on my farm or being goofy with my kids role playing a Harry Potter scene or volunteering at my local church or training facility to teach judo to little humans.
Life is good, especially when it’s rooted in optimism and resilience. Thanks for being a witness to my journey, and as I always say…This is my day. This is my purpose.
Kayla Jean Harrison is born July 2, 1990
Kayla wins the Junior U.S Open 3 years in a row.
Kayla begins Judo, having been introduced to the sport by her mother, who practiced in college.
Kayla became the third American to win the Junior World Championships in 2008. In 2010, she became the fourth American to win the Senior World Championships, which was especially noteworthy since the event was in Japan.