Katy Carrozza, a longtime friend of Kayla Harrison’s, was supposed to be at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, rooting in person for Harrison to repeat her golden performance in the 172-pound judo weight class.
But days before the Olympics, Carrozza was notified the hotel where she rented a room wouldn’t be renovated in time. She cancelled the trip, and sold her event tickets.
So Carrozza did the next best thing: She organized an Olympic watch party in Middletown, where Harrison lived until she was 16, before moving to Boston to train.
Harrison certainly didn’t disappoint Carrozza, 26, a 2008 Middletown High School graduate, and dozens of other fans and family who watched the Olympics on Thursday at the Pendleton Art Center in downtown.
One of the most nervous spectators was Kenny Harrison Jr., Harrison’s father. Wearing a T-shirt that read, “My Daughter Kayla Harrison Won Gold in the 2012 Olympics,” Harrison paced during the gold medal match when his daughter, ranked No. 1 in the world, defeated Audrey Tcheumeo of France by an ippon, which is a full point scored in judo..
“I about passed out and it wasn’t from the heat,” he said. “The joy knowing that she got her gold medal.”
Harrison went 4-0 in dominating fashion to top the same weight class she won at the 2012 London Olympics. She went into the stands after the win to celebrate with some of her family.
Her father was asked the difference between her gold medal performance in 2012 and this year’s.
“It was a journey and it means more to her than the first one,” he said. “They’re both priceless. She had it in her mind that she wanted to be known as the best judo player in the world and I think she proved it.”
Four years ago, Harrison became the first American to win a gold medal in judo.
Harrison, 26, has said this would be her final Olympics, and if that’s true, she went out a champion, her father said.
“This is priceless … there are no words to describe it,” he said. “If she won gold, silver or bronze, it didn’t matter. She’s still Kayla Harrison. If she’s happy, I’m happy. She has worked hard. She accomplished another one of her dreams.”
Four years ago, when Harrison won gold, the City of Middletown hosted a parade in her honor, erected signs welcoming visitors to the home of two Olympic gold medalists: Harrison and Jerry Lucas (1960) and she visited students throughout Middletown City Schools.
Carrozza, who attended Wildwood Elementary School with Harrison, remembers a conversation they had as children on the playground. Harrison said one day she wanted to win the Olympics in judo.
“Sure,” Carrozza said. “Me too.”
But by the seventh grade, Harrison had started traveling internationally, winning judo competitions. Eventually, Carrozza said she realized “she’s really good. She is hungry and going to get it.”
It was important, Carrozza said, for the city to host a party, as a way to show their love of Harrison.
“Middletown is behind her,” she said. “Her hometown is proud of her.”
Meanwhile, numerous employees at Atrium Medical Center, where some of Harrison’s family and friends work, wore red, white and blue uniforms to show their support for Harrison.
Even before her first round match in the 2016 Rio Olympics, Harrison was on the minds of officials and students at Middletown High School.
MHS Principal Carmela Cotter said the 450 freshmen attended their first school assembly Thursday morning in the auditorium, and her message was clear and well received: “Great people come from Middletown High School.”
Cotter said as she talked to the students, she stressed that Harrison sat in the same seats as them only a few years ago, before she moved to Boston to continue her training.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Cotter said.