“When I fought a woman from Cuba, I broke her fucking arm.”
If AnnMaria De Mars cared about us excusing her French, she’d have asked us to excuse her French. But this she did not do as she told us exactly what she said to her Olympic Bronze medalist daughter in an effort to cool a moment of competitive panic before an international match.
That’s right. Those are her gentle words of motherly advice. And they are entirely in keeping with the armbars that the 5-foot-2-inch De Mars used to use to wake the same daughter up for school in the morning — the daughter who became the undefeated Bantamweight Ultimate Fighting Championship belt holder, Ronda Rousey. Rough way to welcome a kid to the day? Well, if winning were going to be easy, everybody would win. Which is not at all how the real world works, really.
Armbar: Mixed martial arts technique that involves bending the elbow of your opponent’s arm back against the joint, using a part of your own body as a leverage point.
”It’s rare to see someone get to that level of athletic achievement and be really relaxed about getting there,” said Dallas Winston from the sports commentary site SB Nation. “Or nice. Or friendly,” he laughs.
But De Mars is all those things: nice, friendly and not so relaxed. When we catch her on a rare day off, what we want to know above anything else is this: What happens in the heads of folks for whom winning becomes a kind of addiction? It was something De Mars wondered herself when Ronda, an athlete just like her other three kids, announced that she wanted to be a champion, too. Just like her mom.
De Mars is all those things: nice, friendly and not so relaxed.
“My mother drove me over to the local Y when I was about 12 and literally pushed me out of the car,” says De Mars. ”And she told me ’GET EXERCISE,’ before she pulled off.” Of the available exercise options — swimming, track and judo — judo seemed to make the most amount of sense “for a short, fat kid who didn’t want to run or put on a swim suit.””I took it really seriously since I knew exactly what it took to do that. No way was I going to work harder than her for something she said that she wanted,” said De Mars. So she did her due dilligence and rounded up all of the people that she had met on her way up — world team judokas, Olympic champs — and asked them what their parents and coaches did to lay the groundwork for success. It’s that kind of methodical approach that helped her transform from an overweight 12-year-old Air Force brat in Alton, Illinois, born to nonathlete parents, into a national competitor by age 16.
De Mars won her first tournament just six months later, and by her second tournament she took second place competing as a 13-year-old against 16-year-olds. And if it wasn’t clear before now, she was hooked. Hooked and killing it academically, so much so that she got to college at age 16. There, she joined an exchange program and got herself to Japan where she could study business, sure, but also judo. Not so strange when you know that women’s judo began with a competition back in November 1926, and when you know that the inventor of judo, Kano Jigoro, taught it to his wife and daughters.
Still, studying judo in Japan is like studying math at MIT (it was recently made nearly compulsory for school-age kids in Japan). Not only are the coaches tough — and sometimes tougher on Westerners — but the training more than occasionally tips over into brutal.
But De Mars came back in 1978, at the age of 20, to win the U.S. Senior Nationals, U.S. Collegiate Nationals and the U.S. Open. Her academic career continued at the University of Minnesota, where she earned an MBA. But the competitive fire burned hot still, and in 1981 De Mars won bronze in the British Open and Tournoi d’Orleans. The following year saw her ranked No. 1 by the United States Judo, Inc., which she rounded out with wins in 1983 at the Pan American Games, the Austrian Open, the Canada Cup and the 1984 World Judo Championships.
Then, in short order, she had kids, married, was widowed, remarried, earned more degrees (an MA and a PhD in educational psychology), began a 27-year career in IT consultancy and co-founded a company to improve life in disadvantaged communities on Indian reservations. She may not compete any longer, but she’s still teaching judo and staying involved in the U.S. Judo Association. And through it all, she got her kids to that magical place: winning.
“Look, I have coached lots and lots of kids,” De Mars says, and almost on cue we can hear kids laughing and playing in the background of her call from Southern California. ”But with Ronda, I saw a kid that absolutely refused to lose. She wouldn’t give up. She always wanted to practice. She asked a judo champ friend of mine what he would coach his girls to do in order to beat her! And after talking to those champs, we started doing things that other people don’t do. Or what they do, but [we’d] just do more of it. Not just the day of the competition but all the time. To be the best.”
And there it lingers. With four happy kids (one’s an ESPN sportscaster, Maria Burns Ortiz) in wildly different walks of life, this businesswoman and blogger is always willing to scrap online or in person about judo, her kids or just about anything, really.
”To be the best.” Damn straight.
Why you should care
Because saving all that sugar and spice stuff for someone who could actually use it would be a much better use of your time.