AnnMaria Rousey didn't want the third of her four daughters to take up judo.
The two oldest had tried it but didn't stay with it for long. And because Ann, as she's known, had won the world judo championship in 1984 she knew that 11-year-old Ronda would be measured against an unreasonably high standard.
"I tried to talk her out of it," Ann said. "She was a good swimmer and she made the junior Olympics in swimming, but she wanted to do it. I told her, 'Everybody is going to expect you to win junior nationals right away.'
"But then a friend said to me, 'Nobody remembers you. Let the kid do it.' And she was pretty good right away, partly because she's a good athlete and she's a real competitive person."
Which only proves that mom isn't always right, even if this mom has a doctorate in educational psychology, teaches at the Venice Judo Club in Culver City and remains the only U.S. woman to have won a gold medal at the world judo championships.
Ronda Rousey, now 17, is the top-ranked female judo player in the United States. Barely a year after undergoing ligament surgery on her right knee, she won in her weight class at the Pan American Judo Union senior championships April 20 at Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, giving the U.S. a berth in the 63 kg (138.6-pound) class at the Athens Olympics.
Ten days after her Pan Am triumph, she defeated 1992 Olympian Grace Jividen to win the U.S. title and reinforce her top seeding at the Olympic trials, to be held June 5 in San Jose.
"She's the only woman in the U.S. who has a chance to win the Olympics because of her style," said her coach, Jimmy Pedro Sr. "She's aggressive and strong. She matches well against everyone from the rest of the world, against European-style judo."
Judo's name comes from Japanese characters that mean "gentle" and "way," but not much seems gentle about it.
Using techniques based on strength, balance and agility, judo students try to subdue opponents through grips and throws and pin their opponents on the mat. Chokeholds or armlocks are permitted. An opponent who feels endangered can "tap out," or surrender, by tapping the mat with a hand or foot.
It's not for the faint of heart. But it is a driving force in Ronda Rousey's life.
"There's something about judo that makes me feel separate from everybody else," she said. "I couldn't stand being average and like everybody else. It's what makes me me."
The International Judo Federation's website says the sport is the second-most popular in the world, after soccer, and provides "a wonderful system of physical, intellectual and moral education" while giving students "a code of ethics, a way of living and a way of being."
It has been a passion for Ann since she was "a short, fat little kid who didn't want to wear a swimsuit" and took a judo class at the YMCA because it was one of the few sports available to girls in Alton, Ill., before Title IX.
"You can knock people down," she said, "and when you're in the brown and black belt division, you can bend [an opponent's] elbow back until it pops up. If you do that on the street, you get arrested. In judo, you get rewarded."
It usually takes years to learn the techniques of domination and submission and to absorb the culture of mental and emotional control. Ronda, however, was a quick study, and she has never shown any fear. She remembers early in her career an opponent dislocated her elbow while trying to throw her, "but I just popped it back in the right way."
She added, "I don't dread anybody. If I dreaded facing somebody and came up to fight them, I wouldn't have the right state of mind."
She has been training in Wakefield, Mass., since January, living in an apartment owned by her coach.
Judo is Pedro's passion but firefighting is his profession, so he couldn't go to the Pan Am competition with her, delegating his coaching duties to his son Jimmy Jr., who's no slouch. Jimmy Jr. won a bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the lightweight category, was the 1999 world champion at 71 kg (156.2 pounds) and won the Pan Am Judo Union title at 73kg.
"Training-wise, I have to tell her to slow down because she just goes and goes and goes," the elder Pedro said. "She has a completely different personality than her mother, but she's got the tenacity her mother did. Ronda's a lot softer. You could hurt her feelings, and you couldn't hurt her mother's. Ronda's 17. At 17, things bother you, emotionally or otherwise. She'll get toughened up. She's a woman, but in some ways she's still a little girl."
Ann agreed, saying she feared more for her daughter's emotional well-being than for what Ronda might face on the mat.
"Ronda's pretty tough. It would make more sense to be afraid for the other girl," said Ann, who awarded the medal to her daughter at the U.S. championships. "But it hurts her when she loses. And when you see your kid hurt, and you know she's given up so much, anything that hurts your children hurts you."