Ronda Rousey took the world of mixed martial arts by storm, making history by becoming the first woman to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the most prestigious mixed-martial arts league.
Perhaps her achievement comes as no surprise, given that she didn’t have to go far for inspiration.
Her mother, AnnMaria De Mars, was a pioneer in her own right — with a lot less support and exposure.
“[Judo] made a big difference for me,” said De Mars, 54. “I always tell people I’d be in Chino women’s prison right now except for two things — I was good at judo and I was good at math.”
De Mars, who is of Venezuelan descent, found judo as a child after her mother pushed her to get physically active.
“I was a fat little kid with really thick glasses — this is before title IX passed,” said De Mars. “She took me down to the YMCA, pushed me out of the car and said go join something.”
Young AnnMaria discovered early on that her options were very limited. A self-conscious kid, she didn’t want to join swimming or track. A Judo instructor had permitted his sister to join and allowed other girls to sign up which she did.
I told [Ronda] there’s a reason we can live by the beach in Santa Monica, I got a gold medal and a PhD. and it’s not the gold medal that’s paying for it.
- AnnMaria De Mars
She realized quickly judo was her thing.
At 16, she won her division at junior nationals and by the time she graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1978, she had won just about every judo honor possible, except a world championship.
And that was because there was no such thing back then. So, with no higher step to take in the judo world, De Mars quit the sport and turned to her studies, enrolling in graduate school.
Ironically, world championships in judo for women started when she was still in school. Before she could think about returning to competition, she had to put her dreams on hold again — she was pregnant with the first of her daughters, Maria.
But she wouldn’t be deterred. She remained determined and, in 1984, De Mars dusted off her judo gi (the judo uniform) and won her first women’s world judo title — the first American woman to hold that honor.
“For me, judo was a ticket up,” said De Mars, reminiscing on how far she has come — besides judo, she obtained a master’s in business administration and a doctorate in educational psychology.
But De Mars’ life hasn’t been without tragedy. Her second husband committed suicide after a sledding accident broke his back and a rare disease complicated his recovery.
De Mars has turned into an ambassador for the sport of judo, teaching children and holding seminars on the sport.
She recently co-authored “Winning On The Ground,” a book on judo mat techniques. She also has developed software and IT programs and is working on video games focusing on math, her other love.
De Mars is a mother of four daughters including judo Olympian and UFC champion Rousey and Maria Burns Ortiz, a renowned sports journalist (Disclosure: She’s a Fox News Latino contributor).
As much of a role model as De Mars has become, she has tried to remain relatively hands-off with her children.
“If you try to coach your own child too much, they try to be another version of you,” she said. “It’s always better to come up with your own style and technique and that’s true if you’re a writer or an athlete or anything.”
But, if it’s up to her, she would prefer that their dreams include pursuing high educational attainment.
“I told [Ronda] there’s a reason we can live by the beach in Santa Monica,” said De Mars. “I got a gold medal and a PhD — and it’s not the gold medal that’s paying for it.”