At age 10, Kayla Harrison was climbing a tree in her front yard when she fell, dropped 30 feet, hurt her neck, and couldn’t move. “My aunt was inside babysitting my younger siblings,” Harrison says. “Thank goodness my dog Tess wouldn’t stop barking.” The fluffy Chow Chow mix barked and howled until Harrison’s aunt came outside, saw what had happened, and called an ambulance. “I guess you could say she kind of saved my life,” Harrison says.
If her childhood best friend hadn’t rescued her, Harrison, who lives in Marblehead, Mass., might never have achieved her current status as the No. 1 ranked Judo player in her weight class in the U.S., and No. 3 in the world.
She’s a favorite to win the gold in London this summer, having taken the gold at the World Championships in Tokyo in 2010. This February at the Paris Grand Slam, she defeated the No. 1 world-ranked judoka in her division, and at the Düsseldorf Grand Prix, Harrison became the first U.S. woman and only the third U.S. fighter ever to take the top spot on the podium.
When she’s not training or competing, Harrison spends a lot of time with dogs.
“I had a job in downtown Boston walking dogs, and then when I moved to Pennsylvania and rented a room in a home, I started walking [the family’s American Bulldog] Sarge,” she says. Harrison became very close with the family. The father, Pat O’Sullivan, does judo, and Harrison began to mentor and train the two daughters, Kaelin and Darcy. But her strongest bond was with the family’s 104-pound, 4-year-old American Bulldog.
“He’s like my baby now,” she says. “I always stay with him whenever they go out of town. I can’t have a dog where I live now, but I go over to see him almost every day. He’s such a big goofball. He’s a huge dog, his head is massive, and he looks like the toughest dog on the block, but he’s the biggest sissy.”
Sarge also lives with two cats, but the cats rule the roost, Harrison says. “He has no say in anything. If he wants to go upstairs, and one of the cats is at the top of the stairs, he’ll hug his body up the wall and climb the stairs very slowly, looking at the cat the whole time to make sure it’s OK.”
When someone knocks on the door, Harrison says, Sarge lets loose a big, loud, deep bark. “But after we have our walks and I leave, he does this little yelp like a Chihuahua. I call it his crybaby bark. You wouldn’t believe that noise could come out of that dog, but it’s so cute because he doesn’t want me to leave.”
When Harrison and her fiancé go hiking in the mountains in New Hampshire, they take Sarge with them. “When we got to a creek of melted snow, not only would he refuse to drink it, but he wouldn’t walk across it,” she says. “My fiancé had to pick him up and carry him across the water.”
For Harrison, Sarge stands in for the dog she can’t actually have. “He means everything to me,” she says. “He’s not mine, but I think I’m his.”