Ronda Rousey steps onto the mat during the 2007 World Judo Championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and bows respectfully to her opponent. When the referee shouts “Hajime!”—which means “start” in Japanese—154-pound Rousey attacks, battling for advantage before ultimately sending her opponent flying through the air and crashing on her back. The thud is so loud that the sound can be heard in the stands. The crowd lets out a collective groan as if each spectator felt the bone-jarring fall.
That’s one way to win a judo match: throw your opponent on their back and score an ippon, the equivalent of a knockout in boxing. Rousey, 21, of Wakefield, Mass. (pop. 24,804), wins many of her matches by ippon. As America’s premier judo athlete, Rousey will travel to Beijing next month to compete at the Summer Olympics.
“I love judo,” says Rousey, who hopes to become the first American to win Olympic gold in the Japanese martial art. “I’m passionate about it because it enables me to dare and try to be the best at something.”
Judo is in Rousey’s genes. Her mother, AnnMaria DeMars, was an international judo star and the first American to win a gold medal in the world championships. DeMars initially encouraged Ronda to try gymnastics and swimming rather than judo. But in 1997, when DeMars brought her 10-year-old daughter to a judo practice, Ronda decided to try the martial art for fun and fell in love with it. She left gymnastics and swimming and her mother became her judo coach.
“Ronda pours herself into her sport—heart, body and soul—and doesn’t leave herself any excuses to lose,” her mother says.
Judo is not for the faint-of-heart; it’s a physically demanding—and potentially dangerous—sport in which an athlete uses stunning throws, forceful trips and flips, and incapacitating holds to subdue and defeat an opponent.
In addition to her ability to fling opponents through the air, Rousey is skilled at grappling on the mat, applying pins, chokes or her favorite technique: the arm lock. When she secures an arm lock, her opponent has limited choices: Either submit by tapping the mat twice, or face the possibility of a broken arm.
A seasoned competitor, Rousey has been preparing mentally and physically for the Olympics for years. At 16, she earned her black belt and began dreaming of making the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, even naming her cat “Beijing.” Unexpectedly, she qualified for a spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team and placed a respectable ninth in her weight class in Athens, Greece. Still, she wasn’t satisfied.
“I wanted the gold and was devastated,” she recalls. “I cried afterward.”
The following year Rousey dropped out of Santa Monica (Calif.) College and moved from Santa Monica to the Boston area to train with Jimmy Pedro Sr. and his son, Olympic medalist and world judo champion Jimmy Pedro. She trained hard and missed some of the activities of a typical teenager.
“I didn’t have a normal social life,” she recalls. “I couldn’t go to movies or parties like other girls.”
Her hard work has paid off. Last September, Rousey won a silver medal in the World Judo Championships, becoming the first American to medal in the event since 1995. She also won gold medals at the British Open, the Pan American Games, the Budapest World Cup and the Vienna World Cup, and is favored to medal at the Beijing Olympics.
“A lot of people think that’s added pressure, but it makes me feel better about it,” she says. “A great player will fight tooth and nail to win a match, but never fight ‘not to lose.’”
Her coach, Pedro Sr., is convinced Rousey has what it takes to win at the Olympics. Her best quality, he says, is her tenaciousness: “She just plain hates to lose.”