Four years ago, Middletown, Ohio native Kayla Harrison made history as the first American judoka to win a gold medal at the Olympics. She defeated hometown hero Gemma Gibbons, and did so with a dislocated knee and the harrowing experience of the sexual abuse she had endured as a child.
The Harrison that arrived in Rio bears little resemblance to the one who appeared in London at age 22. The judo coach who had abused her for three years when she was a pre-teen is behind bars and the thoughts of suicide no longer accompany her every waking hour. Yet even though time is supposed to heal all wounds, it was unable to remove the emotional lacerations inflicted upon her heart.
"Sexual abuse is such a difficult subject because it does things to the mind and to the development of a young person that you can't really see," Harrison told ABC News. "There are no scars on me, there's no injury, you can't physically see that I'm wounded. But when you're 10 or 12 years old, and you go through something like that, it changes you. It changes you as a person."
No longer a novice, Harrison is a champion back to defend her historic win. While London 2012 was a story about redemption and the determination of the downtrodden, Rio 2016 is Harrison's shot at affirmation, a chance to cement her legacy before she lays down her competitive gi for good.
The judoka is at a crossroads in her competitive career.
While becoming the first American judoka to defend her historic gold medal win is Harrison's current priority, she hinted repeatedly that a future in mixed martial arts was not out of the question. In fact, she revealed that it was "one of the top two" choices.
"Obviously, MMA is something that I'm considering," Harrison told SBNation's Guilherme Cruz. "It could potentially be a very lucrative career for me, but at this point, my focus is just on the tournament on August 11. Then, maybe a beach somewhere here in Rio for a couple of days, and then I'll make some big decisions."
Despite significant inexperience in boxing, kickboxing, or Muay Thai, Harrison would be a welcome addition in MMA, particularly based on her accomplishments. While Rousey became the biggest female star in UFC history and dominated the sport for several years, Harrison has already surpassed her achievements in the Olympics. While Ronda managed a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Harrison eclipsed that with a gold medal win four years later.
Though Harrison's pedigree would be an asset for a promotion like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the 26-year-old is perfectly aware that she may not enjoy the brutality of MMA. She enjoys hitting people, yet has not learned to enjoy being hit herself.
Interestingly, Rousey and Harrison were roommates ahead of the former's Olympic run in Beijing. They stayed together in the parental home of their judo coach, which was where Harrison developed an itch to achieve Rousey's stardom. She fed off Rousey's confidence, and kindled a fire within her that may never have been lit without her roommate's indirect help.
"Anything she does, I wanna do - and I wanna do it better."
Rousey, who regularly sparred with Harrison in the gym, easily recalled her passion and competitive drive.
"Kayla very much cared — practice, competition, she had that deep caring about how she did," Rousey said. "What really made her stand out the most was how important it was to her, to see how passionate she was about it."
Though Harrison used Rousey for motivation, it was far from the only benefit she received from the former UFC champion. According to the judoka, Rousey helped her deal with the aftermath of her sexual abuse and even helped her financially whenever Harrison couldn't even afford groceries.
"There's a lot more to Ronda than you guys see," she said.
While Harrison is quickly approaching the crossroads in her career, an entire Olympic tournament lies ahead of her. She will commence competition on Thursday afternoon at 78kg, and that is all that matters at the moment. Harrison, the overshadowed youngster, the victim of violation, and the Olympic champion, will only allow herself to focus on her immediate destiny.
"One match at a time, one minute at a time, one grip at a time, one exchange at a time, one breath at a time."