In 1997, AnnMaria married a rocket scientist (literally), Dennis De Mars, and the family returned to Southern California. Money was no longer a problem, and by then Ronda's speech had improved. AnnMaria encouraged Ronda to get back into swimming, but Ronda remained resolute: no Dad, no pool.
AnnMaria began reconnecting with her old judo training partners, and Ronda found herself hanging around dojos again. "In swimming there's no creativity," she says. "You swim. There and back." In judo Ronda could toss her opponents the way she'd thrown her Wrestling Buddy and could pretzel them into joint locks and chokeholds. Echoing her dad's prediction about her swimming, she declared at the end of her first judo lesson, "I'm winning the Olympics in this now."
Tony Mojica, Rousey's first judo teacher, didn't share her optimism. "She wasn't a very good player at first," he says, "but she was like Al Davis: Just win, baby." What she lacked in skill she made up for in determination, and eventually her form caught up with her feistiness. At 14 she was invited to work out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. National team coaches took notes on each judoka's technique and tendencies. On Ronda's sheet a coach scribbled in a corner, Ronda will throw it down with Olympic team members, national champions. This kid fears no one.
Why would she? Her toughest opponent was at home. Nearly every night Ronda and her mother trained at a club in Venice. AnnMaria drilled her daughter at home too. "I would armbar her every time she'd turn around," AnnMaria says. If Ronda needed to be awakened in the morning? Armbar. Lazing around on the couch? Armbar.
"I hate you!" Ronda would yell at her mother.
"I'm doing this because I want nobody to be able to armbar you," AnnMaria would tell her. "I'm going to do this and do this until no one can catch you."
Ronda learned quickly. At 17 she won the World Judo Championships in the under-20 division and became the youngest judoka at the 2004 Athens Games, where she finished ninth. Four years later, in Beijing, using her mother's lessons to fulfill her father's promise, Rousey became the first U.S. woman to win a judo medal, taking a bronze in the 63- to-70-KG division. As she stood on the podium, up in the stands her family unfurled the U.S. flag from Ron's coffin to celebrate.
My whole life, my whole identity was going to the Olympics and winning the Olympics," Rousey says. "Then the Olympics were over, and I didn't want to go back in four years. I was left with no goals and no direction."
She worked odd jobs. She bartended for a year. She tried to "go and enjoy my life and see what normal people do," she says. Feeling that judo had little left to teach her, she cut herself off from the sport and most of the people associated with it except for Gene LeBell, a trainer with the Hayastan MMA team. "You'd rock at MMA," the Hayastan fighters would tell Rousey. She resisted at first, but slowly she felt drawn to the creativity and challenge of a new sport.
Rousey needed to try something. She was living on what she called "the bomb-shelter diet": mostly nonperishable foods. She carried a $9 cellphone from Target. Then one day she ordered a McDonald's coffee only to discover that she had no cash—not even change—to pay for it. Worse, her bank account was overdrawn.