World Series champ and Olympic gold: Schwarber inspired by fellow hometown hero

·4 min read

Oct. 27—BOSTON — These days, people know him as "Kyle from Waltham."

Kyle Schwarber, the Red Sox star slugger, has become a fan favorite since arriving in Boston at the trade deadline. He's won praise for his big bat, sharp eye and laid back approach, and recently he's become associated with the western Boston suburbs thanks to the most meme-centric portion of the fanbase.

Turns out the love is mutual. Schwarber wore a t-shirt shouting out the Waltham High Hawks after Game 3, and the city returned the favor by naming him an honorary resident.

But more than 800 miles to the west, there is another city that calls Schwarber its own, and like Waltham the residents of Middletown, Ohio are proud of how far one of their own has gone.

Yet even Schwarber acknowledges that there is another athlete who deserves the honor of "Pride of Middletown," and she happens to have some local ties as well.

Kayla Harrison, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo and now a professional mixed martial arts fighter, also hails from the same Ohio community that produced Schwarber. The two grew up only a couple of miles apart and both attended Middletown High School, though not at the same time.

Harrison, who fights Taylor Guardado for the Pro Fighters League lightweight championship tonight, famously endured a tragic and painful adolescence, becoming a victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her former coach before moving to the North Shore, where she trained under two-time bronze medalist Jimmy Pedro of Methuen at his dojo in Wakefield.

She has lived locally most of the past decade-plus since then, including stints in Marblehead and Danvers. She currently lives and trains in Florida.

As she rose to national prominence and became the first American to win a gold medal in judo at the 2012 London Games, Harrison spoke out publicly about her experience. She was prominently featured on a Sports Illustrated cover story on childhood sexual abuse alongside pitcher R.A. Dickey that year and went on to defend her gold medal at Rio 2016 four years later.

Though the two have never met, Schwarber said he knows Harrison's story well and that she has been an inspiration for him and the entire Middletown community.

"She's been a real positive role model," Schwarber said last week. "[She's shown] anything's possible. It doesn't matter your background, it doesn't define you in terms of the negative things that have happened in your life that you can turn those negatives around and use them as positive motivation to get to where you want to be."

Harrison was not able to comment for this story because she is in final preparations for her title fight, but her coach Pedro said Harrison still maintains close ties to Middletown and that much of her family still lives there.

"When she won her medals, the town did some big parades with her and they had a Kayla Harrison Homecoming Day," Pedro said. "They celebrated her and made her feel welcome and like a star."

An old industrial community, Schwarber described Middletown as a diverse city with a lot of history. Back in the day, he said, most people would come right out of high school and work for the town's steel mill. Modern Middletown is a little different, but he has many fond memories growing up in town.

"You get a good sense of community, it's a decently sized town but it's not so big that you don't feel lost," Schwarber said. "I grew up playing sports and those were my finest memories, just being able to attend sporting events."

Schwarber and Harrison aren't the only athletes from Middletown to achieve national prominence, NBA Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas and Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter both hailed from the city as well. But of this current generation, they stand above the rest, and Schwarber said he appreciates Harrison and the way she has represented their city.

"It's nice having another person from my hometown with obviously a lot of success," Schwarber said. "I'm really happy for her."

Email: mcerullo@northofboston.com.

Twitter: @MacCerullo.

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