Ronda Rousey always wanted to compete at the Olympics, but she was surprised when she made the U.S. judo team in time for the 2004 Games in Athens. She was just 17 at the time. As VOA's Steve Schy reports, she's 21-years-old now, more experienced and brimming with confidence as she prepares to compete in Beijing.
had expected to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games. She even named her cat Beijing after the host city. But she ended up qualifying for Athens in 2004 as the youngest judo competitor at those Games. Rousey finished ninth in the 63-kilogram division, the top American woman in judo. No American woman has ever won an Olympic judo medal. But Rousey told VOA Sports that finishing ninth in 2004 might help her change that.
"I think it just kept me really hungry, you know," she said. "If I just strolled into the Olympics at 17 and went and won and walked out I would have been like, 'Hey this judo stuff is easy, you know.' No I would have lost a lot of ambition I think if I had won it on the first shot."
Ronda Rousey did not start her athletic career on the judo mat. Like a lot of California kids, her first sport was swimming.
"I was a swimmer from when I was six till I was 10. I lost interest in it. I thought it was really boring," she recalled. "But they put me in sports [because] I had so much energy I was bouncing off the walls. But I also had a short attention span, too. They said, 'Okay, go swim back and forth for two hours. You know, a little kid that wants some stimulation is not really going to be entertained by that."
When she tired of swimming, Ronda decided she wanted to try judo. In 1984, her mother, AnnMaria, became the only American woman to win gold at the World Judo Championships. AnnMaria was not sure judo was a good idea for her daughter, worrying that she would suffer by comparison. But much to Ronda's delight, her mother finally gave her permission to try judo.
"I just thought it was awesome," she said. "It was like so much more creative and you would do so much different stuff. I mean swimming you know, you do the butterfly and [if] your legs spread apart you are disqualified. You know, you have to do it exactly the right way. And like judo, as long as they fall down on their back, hey, just fine, do it that way."
From the beginning Ronda has exceeded all expectations. She became only the second U.S. athlete ever to win a gold medal at the 2004 World Junior Judo Championships and took the bronze two years later.
In March of 2007 Rousey moved up to judo's 70-kilo division and won gold with the U.S. team at last year's Pan American Games. And her 2007 silver medal made her the first American woman to make the podium at a World Championships since 1995.
Ronda says success at the Olympics has three components, and she is working hard on the one she can control, training.
"A lot of it is by the luck of the draw and a lot of it is about how good of a day you have, but most of it is about how you train," she explained.
Rousey expressed her hope that political protests to China's policies toward Darfur and Tibet will not impact the games.
"People do not really see the Olympic Games as what it is. It's supposed to be an apolitical event," she said. "And you know, wars happen, tsunamis come down, hurricanes all this stuff. It is really tragic and terrible. But you know what? There is always an Olympic Games. It does not stop, it keeps going. I think it is really sad that people would actually want to stop that, because it is actually a peaceful, beautiful thing."
Ronda Rousey is hoping the hard work and talent that has made her one of the top three ranked women in the world in the 70-kilogram division will pay off in Beijing, as she tries to become the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in judo.