This article was first seen on the Huffington Post. For this installment, we are joined by Dr. AnnMaria De Mars.
You were 12 years old and you heard that there was a national judo championship coming up. What went through your mind and how did that shape your life?
When I heard there was a national championships, I decided I was going to win that some day. It’s funny, in retrospect, because I was a short, nearsighted, chubby kid from a small town in Illinois at a YMCA club no one had ever heard of. I just assumed that if I trained hard, I could win. Turns out, I was right!
Ironically, I feel as if being in a small town was an ADVANTAGE. I was the toughest 12-year-old orange belt around so I thought I was awesome. If I had been in a bigger city, I probably would have gotten beat down and put in my place, but since that did not happen, I went on assuming I could win if I just kept training.
And you’ve always loved Judo haven’t you? You loved doing it, practicing, competing? How important do you feel it is to do something you love in your life? What advice can you give around that?
You know those people who say, “No pain, no gain?” That hasn’t been my experience. I had a great time at practice every day but one. I don’t know what happened that day but things just didn’t click and people who normally could not throw me were tossing me around.
I remember that day because some guy who normally I could beat was dusting the mat with me and my coach stepped in and thrashed him saying, “Don’t you know that you don’t beat on girls?” Other than that one day, though, I had a great time every day. I’ve never understood those people who believe you need to suffer at practice to win at competition. How much would that suck, to be miserable 350+ days of the year so that on those 12 days you had tournaments you’ll be happy?
You only get one life and you ought to spend it doing things that make you happy with people you like. I could do a lot of things that make more money than running 7 Generation Games, but could I do something that would help more people, do more good in the world and make me look forward to waking up and going to work every day? I think not.
It seems that we have a lot of people in America who spend their days doing jobs they hate so they can buy stuff they don’t want to impress people they don’t like. What’s the point of that?
You lived with your grandmother Emelia Maria Castillo (Waddell) for a while and inherited a lot of her wisdom. I know she spoke about telling the truth, believing in yourself, never giving up – what has been the most valuable lesson of all that had the greatest impact in your life?
My grandmother was the most amazing person I ever met. I wish I could be half as good as her! The most valuable lesson I learned from her had nothing to do with judo. It was to always believe in your children and love them no matter what. She was a very devout Catholic and if I lost a match or anything else went wrong in my life, up to and including my husband dying, she would say, “God knows what he’s doing, even when you don’t.”
I’ve tried to take that lesson to heart and when things did not go the way I wanted try to learn from whatever happened and have faith that it will all work out.
Two other people that had a big impact in your life were Frank Fullerton and Bruce Toups. How have they made a difference in your life?
When I was young, I couldn’t have traveled to Europe any more than I could have flown to the moon. We just did not have the money. Bruce and Frank believed that I could bring medals home to the U.S. and they paid my expenses to train and compete around the world. They didn’t know me, they didn’t owe me anything, they just did it out of patriotism and because they thought I worked hard and had talent.
I try very hard to pay that back. Frank has since passed away and it isn’t as if Bruce needs me to pay him back so he can buy another Mercedes. I know that what would mean the most to them is that I do the same for the next generation.
In 2004, I was flying back from Athens (where my daughter had competed in the Olympics) and I happened to be at the same flight as Frank Fullerton and he said to me, “It’s nice to see you turned out to be worth all of the trouble.” That meant more to me than any medal I ever won. (I was a LOT of trouble!)
And today you have four children of your own – what do you feel is the most important life lesson they should learn in today’s world?
That your mother loves you – no matter what. Also, God knows what he’s doing, even if you don’t. Those lessons will help you handle whatever life throws at you.
Tell us about how “No one has the right to beat you EVER.” what do you mean by that?
I mean it in two ways. First of all, when it comes to competition, you are as good as anyone. No matter where they are from, what advantages they have, you have just as much right to win as they do. Secondly, in terms of domestic violence/ bullying – no matter what, no one has the right to lay a hand on you.
I’ve always told all of my children, if anyone ever touches you, all bets are off. Hit them as hard as you can with the closest object and I will bail you out of jail, fight your expulsion, whatever.
In your book, Winning on the Ground, you and James Pedro Sr. write that you don’t believe in luck. That you believe in training. That you must work smart and hard to achieve your goals in life. A lot of people today are looking for secrets and shortcuts, why will that never work?
(Man, you never run out of questions, do you (-: )
A friend of mine has a sign on his office that says, “Don’t be upset about the results that you don’t get from the work that you didn’t do.” Lots of people want short-cuts. I have heard a lot of athletes say, “I don’t believe in training harder, I believe in training smarter.”
What about the people who believe in training harder AND smarter?
Training harder not only helps you physically but mentally. One day, Ronda had already worked out twice, and then she went and biked 20 miles. I told her that she did not need to do that and she said, “Mom, when I look across the mat at that girl, I want to know that there was no way she trained harder than me.”
So it’s about working hard and never giving up. About being courageous and challenging the status-quo. What advice can you give around never giving up? Never backing down?
As parents, I think we sometimes worry about not giving our children every advantage, sending them to the best schools, hiring the best coaches. My mom did not always have the option of doing that and in my case it’s something I have chosen not to do from time to time – not paying for that extra SAT study class, not going along to coach or cheer at every sporting event.
Remember that every time you have to suck it up and win anyone even when the odds are against you, when you have to work all night and still take the same final exam in the morning as your non-working teammates, everyone of those experiences can make you stronger. Whether it is writing a computer program, solving a math problem, winning a tournament or founding a company, overcoming small obstacles makes you prepared to surmount the big ones.
You’ve gone through a lot of challenging times in your life, where did you, time and time again – find the strength to pick yourself back up and follow your dreams?
I firmly believe that your life is the product of the choices you make and I’ve chosen to work hard, continually strive for higher goals and not back down when I thought I was right, because I know that I have to live with the outcome. One of my friends told me she was amazed that after my husband passed away I was able to pack up the family, move from North Dakota to California and start a successful business. I asked her, “Really, what other choice did I have? I could A) Sit around crying and let the rest of my life suck, or B) Not. I choose option B.”
I know that from Judo you learned never to be afraid. Have you ever been afraid of something? How did you deal with that?
I haven’t been afraid of anything in a very, very long time. Probably not since I was a little kid. Very young, it occurred to me that fear is how people control you. The world is full of people who don’t quit their jobs or leave an athletic club/team that is not in their best interest because they are afraid people will talk bad about them. They’re afraid they’ll fail a class or lose money in a business, so they don’t even try.
I look at, “What’s the worst that is going to happen? No one is going to shoot me or sell my children into slavery. I doubt I’m going to wind up living in a box behind the grocery store. “
Years ago, there was a judo referee who had molested young athletes, and I spoke out about it. One of my friends asked wasn’t I afraid that the national board of directors was going to be mad at me. I told her, “So what? What are they going to do? Have me frowned at by a council of elders?”
Our fears diminish us and I’m short enough already!
If you could only choose one thing, what would you tell your younger self?
All those people who say, “Another day went by and I didn’t use algebra” are wrong. You’ll use all of the math and programming you learn in school every day and those people are probably serving you fries at McDonalds.
Let’s talk about something completely different. You co-founded a company called 7 Generation Games where you change the way math is taught and learned. You believe in using technology to create a better world – what can you tell us about that?
I told all of my children all the time, “I have a gold medal and a Ph.D. and one of those enables us to live by the beach in Santa Monica and it’s not the gold medal.”
For so many people, including me, getting an education has been a ticket to a life out of poverty. Many others, though, don’t have that advantage and often it isn’t through being complete slackers – they’re kids! Sometimes they don’t even have a regular teacher in the classroom because the school can’t hire one to work in the area so there is a new substitute every week. Sometimes the teacher has 45 students in a class. Sometimes there are only 21 children but 1 is homeless, one is in emergency foster care, two have disabilities and three are limited in English.
MANY school kids need supplemental instruction that their parents or teachers don’t have the time or ability to provide. Our games are designed to do that. We’ve spent years creating, testing and refining our games to really teach students to use math in real situations, solving word problems involved buying and selling, for example, not just coming up with the answer to 4 x 6 as fast as possible.
I say we focus on technology to create a better world because even though we are in business to make money, our focus is not making the most money as fast as possible, but rather, growing so we can reach as many people and change as many lives as possible. It’s not always the most popular attitude around Silicon Valley but we are still around when a lot of other companies have crashed and burned.
You’ve accomplished so much throughout your career, both personally and professionally. And on your website you state that you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. What’s next for you?
For now, I’m trying to get our games into the hands of as many people as possible. Our first game on Steam is coming out December 16, so that is super exciting, competing as entertainment with the non-educational games. We are releasing our first bilingual game in 2017 and moving into virtual reality in 2018.
We are also doing a seed round for investment because all of this takes money so if you have a Scrooge McDuck type of money vault where you are diving into your piles of cash, I’d appreciate it if you sent a briefcase full of thousand dollar bills to my office. We also take checks.
Where can people go to learn more about you online?