Kayla Harrison

Kayla Harrison recalls Ronda Rousey’s judo exit, ponders future in MMA

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Many eyes turned at Pedro’s Judo Center during practices in 2009. When Ronda Rousey and Kayla Harrison faced off, it was the round to watch.

“I actually miss it,” Harrison said last week. “I miss having a girl to train with who hates to lose as much as me.”

Rousey, now an undefeated UFC champion, became the first U.S. Olympic women’s judo medalist when she took bronze in 2008.

Harrison, then 18 years old, was also at the Beijing Olympics, only as a training partner for the 21-year-old Rousey because the U.S. did not earn a spot in Harrison’s weight division for those Games.

To prep, Rousey and Harrison went to a camp in relative seclusion at the home of their coach’s father off Arlington Pond in Salem, N.H.

“No Internet,” Harrison said. “His TV sucked. It was very much Rocky style.”

They fought in the mornings outside, shaded from the July sun by a tarp normally used to cover a car.

“I had that age advantage, even though she was heavier,” said Rousey, who fought in Olympic judo one weight class lighter than Harrison (about 17 pounds). “I always beat her.”

Then they ran around the lake. When they got back, Rousey and Harrison descended into the cellar and lifted weights.

“It was a catfight every day in the dojo,” said their coach, Jimmy Pedro.

“It works,” Harrison said. “I did the same thing before London.”

Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic judo gold medal at the London 2012 Games. That came three years after her last training bout with Rousey.

In 2009, Rousey made a brief comeback to judo one year after capturing Olympic bronze, Harrison and Pedro said. After two months training at Pedro’s Judo Center in Massachusetts, and a few days training in Japan, Rousey unexpectedly quit and flew home to California, leading to her switch to mixed martial arts.

Rousey has said Pedro disapproved of MMA.

“He pretty much told me to go [bleep] myself,” Rousey said in 2013, according to USA Today. “He didn’t want to help me.”

“I’m not extremely happy with some of the comments that have been made in USA Today,” Pedro said in New York last week. “It didn’t go down like they quoted. I wish Ronda well in her MMA career. I didn’t tell her to bleep off. We didn’t leave on bad terms.”

They left on unfortunate terms, the way Pedro and Harrison tell it. Rousey had returned to training with Pedro’s judo group for two months in 2009 when she accepted an offer, with Pedro’s blessing, to spend a year training in Japan, the birthplace of the sport.

Some of America’s best judokas spent blocks in Japan, including the two-time Olympic bronze medalist Pedro. Rousey would receive $40,000 for one year with housing and food paid for, plus two trips back to the U.S. to visit family, Pedro said.

Harrison and others from the Massachusetts group went with Rousey for her move-in to Japan in 2009. Here’s what Pedro said happened:

“They did a big to-do for her. They rolled out the red carpet, had a big press thing for her. It was very important to the Japanese that they had an American coming to live and train with them for a year. After four days, [Rousey] decided this isn’t for me. Rather than talk to the Japanese, politely ask for her way out of it, she just packed her bags and left. The Japanese were very upset. That’s not their culture. They don’t understand an American just taking off. That’s just not protocol. They shunned the rest of our team and ignored our team. They [the other U.S. judokas] were there for another six weeks. They didn’t give them any rides, didn’t pay attention to them. [The Japanese] were really pissed off.”

“This is all probably in [Rousey’s] book that’s coming out soon,” Harrison joked in a separate interview. “She moved home, and I didn’t hear from her for a long time after that.”

Pedro said he’s occasionally seen Rousey since 2009 and wished her luck in person. He called her an icon and the most recognizable female athlete in the world in an interview last week.

“I knew she’d be successful [in MMA],” Pedro said. “She got a level of judo living at our place for six years that no other female on the planet, other than Kayla, has gotten.”

Harrison is often asked if she might pursue MMA. She’s received offers. Even Rousey has brought it up as the former roommates talk on the phone or text.

“We go back and forth,” Harrison said, adding that Rousey gave her MMA contacts if she wanted to get started. “It’s pretty tempting at times. Who doesn’t want to be famous? Who doesn’t want to be rich? Who doesn’t yearn for all of those things at some point in their life? But I just don’t know if it’s for me, quite honestly. I’m not as confident as Ronda in front of the media. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I’m not a showboater. I don’t think I would be very good at putting on a show or talking trash.”

Rousey, who is quite good at putting on a show and talking trash, admires Harrison’s attitude.

“Kayla very much cared — practice, competition, she had that deep caring about how she did,” Rousey said last month. “What really made her stand out the most was how important it was to her, to see how passionate she was about it.”

Harrison can’t fight in MMA at her Olympic weight. Her judo weight class is a maximum 171 pounds. The highest women’s MMA division caps at 145.

But Rousey competed in Olympic judo in one division lower than Harrison and has dominated in MMA since dropping 15-20 pounds in competition weight. So it’s possible.

And Harrison can be buoyed by the fact that she closed the gap on Rousey in their head-to-head sessions from that pre-2008 Olympic camp to those two months in 2009 when they were so competitive that everybody in the dojo had to watch.

“Who knows, maybe after Rio, [MMA] is what I’ll want to do,” Harrison said.

Kayla Harrison’s comeback from collapse, Brazilian rival

Red Gerard parts with gold medal (briefly) as he returns to slopestyle

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Red Gerard‘s gold medal is damaged. His desire to compete remains in tact.

“The gold medal is, honestly, not doing too good,” Gerard said in a recent interview in New York City.

The 18-year-old snowboarder then unfurled the medal from his pocket and pointed to an adorning clip.

“It took a little beating,” he said. “It broke. We’re going to get it fixed.”

Like many Rio Olympic medalists, Gerard said he planned to send his medal off for repairs. It is a historic one.

Nine months ago, the sixth of seven kids from a Colorado snowboarding family became the first American to take gold in PyeongChang. He became the youngest Olympic snowboarding champion and the youngest individual male U.S. Winter Olympic champion. Eighteen family members made their own headlines, partying at the bottom of the slopestyle course.

Gerard was an underdog in South Korea, not just in stature (not quite 5 and a half feet), but by his previous results. He had not made a podium at the X Games or U.S. Open. His two top-level wins came in California and Utah events without the top Canadians and Norwegians in the field.

Really, it was reminiscent of friend Sage Kotsenburg, whose second slopestyle win in nine years came at the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi. Kotsenburg entered seven contests in his follow-up season, according to World Snowboarding, then faded out of competition to focus on making snowboard films, ultimately announcing retirement at age 23 in 2017.

While Gerard also enjoys filming, he plans to carve a different path.

“I love doing contests,” he said, “and I love the exhilaration that you get from them.”

Gerard already competed in New Zealand in September, placing 21st in a big air event. His season begins in earnest in December with the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., then the X Games in January, world championships in Park City in February, plus the U.S. Open in Vail.

Maybe one of those days will be like the Olympics. Gerard credited his PyeongChang success to the course suiting him. He chose off-path features on the rail and jump sections that others ignored, not winning solely on the back of big tricks.

“Every contest, there’s a different person that wins, for the most part,” he said. “I’m super psyched that it just so happened for me, it was the Olympics.”

Minutes after winning in PyeongChang, Gerard said he didn’t know about 2022. He only knew that he wanted to do snowboard filming.

“I 100 percent want to go into 2022,” he said last month. “Definitely that’s on my list. But also filming is one step ahead for me right now. Filming is always something I’ve had a passion for. That’s my goal for next year, then after that I’ll go back to contests and focus more on that.”

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Ashley Wagner on competitive future, role as coach, and upcoming shows

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When Ashley Wagner finished the 2018 season, she made a promise to herself that she would live a little bit more of life. She moved across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, and while she’s still on the ice every day skating and participating in a slate of upcoming shows, she’s now added to her resume as a coach.

We caught up with the three-time national champion and World silver medalist. (Questions and answers lightly edited for clarity.)

How did you get involved in the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation show, Scott Hamilton & Friends

I have actually performed in Scott’s show a couple of times but it’s always during the Grand Prix season, so I haven’t been able to skate in it for the past few years because I needed to focus on my training. It was one of those things where I feel like he heard that I was taking the Grand Prix season off and he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to take part. It was such an easy yes. It’s a really great show. He does a fantastic job at putting together the golden era of figure skating shows. This is how figure skating shows are meant to be. You always know that you’re going to be skating in something that is quality.

The last time I spoke to Scott, he said that even though he says this every year, this show is gonna be the best ever.

I mean, yeah, ‘cause I’m skating in it! [laughing] No, it’s gonna be great. I’m really excited. He passed along my music to me and he sent me an email. He’s like, I heard this song and I thought it was just made for you right away. It’s nice to know that he goes through all of the music selections and really caters it to his show. I think that’s a detail that makes this show so much different than anything else. The music is selected for each athlete so you know that’s it’s a cohesive show. It should be great. We have a couple Olympic medalists. This is the best show you’re gonna see, no joke.

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Working on something new today!🎵🎶

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What’s different about skating to live music compared to a track?

Live music is a lot harder to skate to because you can have an artist up on the stage and maybe they’re feeling a note and you’re in a spiral. All of a sudden you’re like, okay you need to end this note! You’re singing it a lot longer than I’m used to! There are a lot more variables.

It’s like watching skating live versus watching it on TV. When you’re in the arena and the skater is in front of you, you can feel the emotion and the energy that they’re putting out in a performance. I think that skating to live music, you get that same kind of sense. You really get to experience all of the heart that a performer is putting into their music. And that combined with live skating I think it just makes for such a magical recipe. You just really get to experience skating, and experience the music.

How’s life in Boston?

I love it here! This was the best decision that I could’ve made. I’m so happy here. I promised myself after 2018 that I was going to give myself the opportunity to live a little bit of life. I’m still on the ice and skating every single day. But this city just has so much to offer and I feel like I’m really getting to experience a lot more than I was able to in LA. I’m so happy here.

Have you caught yourself adopting any of your coach Rafael Arutunian’s mannerisms when you’re coaching?

Raf is such a loud coach, and he gets away with it because he’s a big Russian man. But as soon as I raise my voice I look ridiculous. It’s been a balance, because it’s a different level of skating here than I’m used to. I’m used to professional, high-level skating and coming here it’s a bunch of kids who are on their way up. Which is really exciting, but it’s definitely been an adjustment for me just to kind of reel back a little bit and not turn into Rafael.

It’s a different phase in their careers.

Exactly. They’re not quite at the level where I can just scream at them to skate a long program. Because they’re 12 years old and I can’t scream at kids.

And they have parents.

And parents! I have to deal with parents. That’s the scariest part of figure skating. I haven’t had to deal with parents since I was 18. That’s been a big change for me.

You did some commentary work for NHK Trophy in Japan. How was that?

It was so much fun and also terrifying. The first event that I covered was the pairs’ short program, so it was definitely a sink or swim moment. I think pairs skating is like the moon. I don’t understand it. It’s so different from anything that I do in my skating life. It was terrifying. I spent the first warm up in a blackout. And then finally was like, ‘okay, I can do this!’ I’m really glad that I got to see what it’s like on the other side. It’s way harder than it sounds.

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Adulting with Andrea

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Did you have a lot of homework?

I did. It was tough because I didn’t really know what I was walking into. I was working with Andrea Joyce so it was like how communication was gonna go, what her role was going to be, what I was responsible for. Once I experienced that I knew how to prepare myself a lot more.

You already mentioned you’re taking the Grand Prix season off. Can you say anything else about your competitive future?

Right now, to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what I want to do. Watching the ladies’ event [at NHK Trophy] in Japan, it was one of those situations where definitely maybe take a step back and think, okay, in order to even be competitive on the scene right now, you need to be throwing out technically perfect programs with two triple-triples, and if you’re not even thinking about a triple Axel, then maybe you should step aside.

It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s best to just take a step back and let skating progress the way it’s going to. I watched Carolina Kostner and what she was able to do toward the later part of her career and I really admire that. I think that there’s something to be said about coming out and putting out quality and still being able to perform that doesn’t entirely write off someone who’s not trying the technically most difficult program. But it’s a lot of work. It’s one of those things where I have to start considering whether or not it’s worth it.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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