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

Kayla Harrison
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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

With career records in view, Mikaela Shiffrin knows nothing is promised

Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
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Sometime in the coming weeks, U.S. alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin will presumably —  presumably being a very loaded and problematic word here  — win her 83rd race on the World Cup circuit, the highest level of her sport, thus passing fellow American Lindsey Vonn for the most career victories by a woman. Not long after that, she will presumably win her 87th race, one more than Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, who won his 86 races from 1975-89. With that win, Shiffrin, who will turn 28 in March, will have accumulated more career victories than any ski racer in history, and will have ended a chase that has been ongoing and presumed for the better part of a decade. She will be deservedly celebrated for this achievement.

That celebration will undersell the moment and give Shiffrin a lesser form of praise than she deserves, because that is what career records do, just by existing. Career records compress the pain and struggle of an athletic career into a single, antiseptic number: the most this, or the most that. Touchdown passes, base hits, goals, sub four-minute miles. It will be said that Shiffrin’s record is the result of sustained brilliance, and that is manifestly true. It will be said that she packed her victories into a shorter period — 12 seasons — than either of the final two racers she passed; Vonn raced 18 seasons and won No. 82 at age 33, while Stenmark raced 16 seasons and won his last race at age 32. So this will also be true.

But these descriptions will soften the toll of Shiffrin’s work, because that is also what career records do. They simplify the complicated and sand down the rough edges, in service of the myth that the chosen number was inevitable. This was particularly true with Shiffrin: She was a prodigy, whispered — and then shouted — about across the breadth of the sport when she was barely in her teens, as the next big — and possibly biggest — thing. She won her first World Cup race at age 17 and an Olympic gold medal at 18 (the 2014 slalom in Sochi). She won a remarkable 17 World Cup races in the season that ended on March 17 of 2019, just four days after her 24th birthday. At that point she had won 60 World Cup races and seemed likely to blow past Vonn and Stenmark in as little as two more seasons. Hosanas were readied.

It has not played out exactly like that. In the three-plus seasons since that remarkable 2019 campaign, Shiffrin has won a total of 16 races (40 of Shiffrin’s 76 wins were crammed into three hyper-successful seasons from 2017-’19). She has changed since then, and she has been changed — by personal tragedy, by injury, by the realization of personal and professional mortality which young athletes deny successfully and older athletes either deny unsuccessfully or accept and fight against. What seemed easy has become much more difficult. (Of course, it was always difficult, Shiffrin just made it look easy, which is what the exceptional among us do.) And she has endured, most of all.

“For the last two years, I’ve had a note with something I wrote down,” Shiffrin said last weekend from her World Cup base in Europe. “It says, basically, what I would like most in life is to go back, like two-and-a-half years. I want to go back to where I was at the start of the year right after that 17-win season. It was my greatest season ever, and I was so happy. And I’d give anything to go back to that feeling.” She does not say this as if saddened, but as if enlightened, a very different thing.

The arc of Shiffrin’s life and career following that 2019 season is well-known to ski racing fans and even to a broader audience that witnessed her struggles in the 2022 Olympics. (More on that upcoming.) Just before the start of the 2020 World Cup season, Shiffrin’s 98-year-old grandmother, Pauline Condron, died. It’s reflexive to diminish deaths of the very old, but loss is loss and Shiffrin was very close to her grandmother. Shiffrin won six races from November to late January — not the pace of her previous season, but not shabby. On Feb. 2, 2020, her father, Jeff, died from an injury suffered in an accident at the family’s home in Colorado, while Mikaela was racing in Europe. From that moment forward, Shiffrin has carried extra weight.

As we talked last week, I suggested to Shiffrin — and again, this is not revelatory in tracing the life of an athlete, or a human being — that what had been a certain kind of innocence had become significantly more complicated in the last few years.

“When I was 16, 17, 18 years old,” says Shiffrin. “I didn’t know many people who had passed away. Since then, two of the five most important people in my life have passed away. They’re not here anymore. And that number is not going to get smaller as I get older.”

After the death of her father, Shiffrin did not race for over 300 days, much of that time during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which World Cup racing continued with relatively few cancellations (although with many interruptions and absences, and of course, no spectators). She returned and won three races in the 2021 season, pushing her total to 69. Content that highlighted her status in that moment often noted that she was “back.” She was not back. She will never be “back” in that simplistic, sports-centric way.

“Coming back to racing after my father passed,” says Shiffrin. “So many people said, ‘Well, you’re back.’ And then I won again and people said, ‘Wow, you’re really back.’ Actually, I was still really struggling.”

At the end of the 2021 season, Shiffrin won four medals at the World Championships, including a gold in the combined downhill-slalom event. She won four more World Cup races before the ’22 Olympics, but did not perform well in Beijing. She skied out early in both the giant slalom (stunning) and slalom (jaw-dropping), and then, after finishing– but not contending — in the speed events of Super-G and downhill, skied out in the slalom portion of the combined. It was an inexplicably poor performance that was endlessly analyzed in real time, including by Shiffrin herself, because she does not shy from public self-analysis, however painful.

Since then, on the one hand, she acknowledges that the experience left scars, because of course it did. At the same time, “I mean, people ask me about it,” she says. “Less and less on a daily basis, but I try to get the message out that I’m moving on.” Some of it will always be a mystery. “In the slalom and giant slalom and the combined, I went out at the fourth gate, the fifth fate, the ninth gate, but I skied those gates exactly how I wanted to ski them. I’m not one to DNF, usually. And in those races, I did not picture myself skiing out of the course, that’s for sure. But I did.”

Ten months have passed since that experience; three years since the deaths of her grandmother and father. This year she won World Cup slaloms in Levi, Finland, on consecutive days, Nos. 75 and 76. And then on Thanksgiving weekend at Killington in central Vermont, a home game on a hill where she had won five slaloms in five starts, she finished fifth (and 13th in giant slalom).

In all of this, the personal tragedies and the racing struggles, her relationship with her sport has evolved. The giant slalom finish in Killington she assigns to training too little this year in the discipline. The rest is more ethereal, more mental. “I’m in the middle of this whole, season-long epiphany, and maybe the Olympics sparked it, of how hard it is to not only win a ski race, but to make it to the finish. That’s not something I’ve struggled with for most of my career, but when you think about it, in ski racing, and you add up the changing conditions, the amount we care, it’s mind-boggling to me what I’ve done for the last 12 years.”

If that sounds like a lack of confidence, maybe, but that’s too simple. Consider it both a mature appreciation and a return to her roots as a racer. Jeff Shiffrin taught his kids — Mikaela and her brother, Taylor — to embrace the process of skiing artfully and to let the wins flow from that. “Any time I’ve started a race trying to win, instead of skiing my best, I have not won that race. But there is such an adrenaline rush to our sport, before you even win the race, and I’m still here for that. If I was here just for the winning, I would have retired by now. Because I’m close to 82 and 86, people find that hard to believe, but it’s true. I’d be done by now.”

She’s not done. Shiffrin thinks about what might come next, and concludes what most athletes conclude: “Anything else I do in life is probably going to be hard, but most other things are not going to give me as much back as ski racing has.” The 2026 Olympics will be jointly hosted by the city of Milan and the mountain resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, an iconic ski racing venue. “Anything could happen, and I could decide to retire,” Shiffrin says. “But I don’t see it happening before the [next] Olympics.”

Unfinished business? (And to be fair, despite Beijing, Shiffrin has three Olympic medals; the only U.S. woman to have won more is Julia Mancuso, with four.) “Not medal-wise,” she says. “But the last three Olympics have been in places that have nothing to do with alpine skiing, normally.” [Boy is that right: Sochi, PyeongChang, and Beijing.] “Cortina is a place that I love. I’d like to experience an Olympics there.” Pause. “And of course if I’m racing, I’m going to want to be a medal contender, and there’s all that goes along with that.” A mouthful.

Before that, 82 and 86 await. Shiffrin will race a giant slalom and slalom this weekend in Sestriere, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympic and Paralympic alpine races. From there, the World Cup grinds on, with 13 more slaloms and giant slaloms beyond that, and numerous speed races, should Shiffrin decide to race those as she often has in the past. There are plenty of opportunities to finish this job, as it were.

Yet she understands, most of all, that nothing is promised, not even life, and certainly not ski race wins. “In one way, I know I’ll win another World Cup race,” she says. Presumably. “But I also know you can’t be certain.” And that is the lesson that will make the records most meaningful.

Jamie Anderson, Olympic snowboarding champion, announces pregnancy

Jamie Anderson
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Jamie Anderson, a two-time Olympic snowboarding champion, announced she is pregnant.

“The most precious and beautiful I’ve ever felt,” was posted on Anderson’s social media. “So incredibly grateful.”

Anderson, a 32-year-old who is engaged to 2018 Canadian Olympic snowboarder Tyler Nicholson, plans to return to competition in late 2023 and try for one more Olympics, a fourth for her, in 2026, according to People, which reported she is seven months pregnant.

A rep for Anderson later clarified that while she is planning on the 2026 Winter Games in Italy, she will take her competitive future on a season-by-season basis beyond that.

“I wasn’t planning on retiring with or without the baby, but I’m just so excited to be able to share this experience with our family,” Anderson said, according to the magazine. “I can see Tyler at the bottom of X Games with the little one. I think that would be really sweet.”

Anderson won the first two Olympic women’s slopestyle titles in 2014 and 2018. She placed ninth this past February after a tearful run-up to the Games.

Anderson also took silver in the first Olympic women’s big air event in 2018. Her 21 career X Games medals across all sites are tied for the record with Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris.

New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, 21, won Olympic slopestyle gold and big air silver in February after sweeping the titles at January’s X Games in Aspen, Colorado. Austria’s Anna Gasser, 31, repeated as big air gold medalist.

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