An accomplished local athlete as a youngster, Harrison moved from Middletown to Boston when she was 16 to train with Olympic bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jimmy Sr., and fell off the local radar.
But after her gold medal performance in the 2012 London Olympics, Harrison became the toast of Middletown, and now she's a darling in the 2016 Rio Olympics as she prepares to defend her title in the 78 kilogram category.
MORE: Middletown’s Kayla Harrison goes for Olympic gold — again
“She’s always been our hero,” said Gary Lebo, former Middletown High School athletic director. “Now she’s an American hero.”
Harrison, 26, has been featured on several Olympic promotional pieces. An advertisement for Liberty Mutual Insurance, which shows her training, debuted last month.
She is the favorite to repeat at this year's Olympics, and regardless of the outcome, those in this region will have a special rooting interest. An event is scheduled Friday in downtown Middletown for the Rio Opening Ceremony, where large TVs will show the broadcast.
After her victory four years ago, Harrison returned to Middletown and talked to students throughout the district about setting goals and overcoming obstacles.
MORE: Middletown welcomes home gold-medalist Harrison
Carmela Cotter, principal at MHS, said after Harrison’s appearance, the senior class decorated the high school hallways with their goals.
The city also hosted a parade in her honor, the Butler County Commission declared Aug. 2, 2012 “Karla Harrison Day” in the county, she received the inaugural “Higher Degree Award” presented by Suncoke; a hard hat from AK Steel; a badge that made her an honorary employee at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown, where several of her relatives work; baseball hats and a T-shirt from the Middletown police and fire departments; several proclamations; and a gold key to the city.
Signs were also erected around the city, recognizing Harrison and another Middletown native — basketball great Jerry Lucas, who also won Olympic gold, albeit 52 years earlier.
Mark Kerns, a retired MHS teacher, organized Harrison’s welcome home celebration four years ago. He was impressed by her athletic accomplishments, but also her love of her hometown.
“She had a natural flow with the kids,” Kerns said. “She had a genuine joy to represent us.”
Cotter said Harrison may have a larger impact outside her sport than on the mat. Harrison has said that she once had suicidal thoughts as she struggled with the impact of sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her childhood coach Daniel Doyle.
Doyle, 16 years her senior, was jailed for 10 years in November 2007 after pleading guilty to abusing Harrison over a three-year period starting when she was 13.
She has talked openly about that abuse and launched a foundation aimed at helping victims of abuse.
“A global winner,” Cotter called Harrison.
When Harrison was a student in the Middletown district, Cotter said she possessed a “youthful spirit” that she never lost.
“She was very focused, very direct, a delight to be around,” the principal said.
Harrison’s younger brother graduated from Middletown High School last year, and her family still lives in Middletown.
“Middletown is family and her family is Middletown,” Cotter said. “She’s a wonderful ambassador for Middletown and Middletown High School.”