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

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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