Amateur sports are woven into the fabric of not just the United States, but throughout the global society as well. Sports provide both children and adults with a healthy and much-needed release from the rigors of daily life. However, for some of the highest-level athletes, sports can become daily life.
The famed U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the mecca of amateur sports. It has seen more Olympic medalists than any other training center in the country. It is like a college campus for Olympic athletes, many of whom also attend college at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Some athletes were destined to be there from the start, while others have followed a winding path. Pauline “PITA” Macias is an American judoka who spent several years at the USOTC, but judo was not always her forte.
“When I was seven years old, I was a hardcore cheerleader and gymnast,” Macias told Combat Press. “My dad had a cousin that did judo, and my younger brother got into it first, when he was four. It was about one day a week, I could go watch him do judo. At the time, my original judo coach just wanted to build his club up, and my parents were like, ‘Yeah, learn how to defend yourself.’ Judo was created for a smaller person to beat a bigger person, so it really made a lot of sense for me to do that, because I was small.”
Her original coach was Steve Bell, who also happened to be a friend of AnnMaria De Mars, former world judo champion and mother to former Olympic judoka and UFC star Ronda Rousey. Bell coached Macias all the way through high school. In 2006, she ended up under the wing of Ed Liddie at the USOTC.
“It was surreal,” Macias said. “When I first found out about the Olympic Training Center, that was all I wanted to do — go to the Olympic Training Center and do judo and be the greatest athlete that ever lived. Being at the Olympic Training Center is very inspiring. The Olympic rings are everywhere. Even the weights and the platform beneath you have the Olympic rings, so it’s a constant reminder of what you’re there for. The Olympic Training Center is like magic.”
Magic, yes. However, the USOTC is also a very focused and regimented environment. Athletes go there to become the best in the world. It’s intense, and the combination of training and classes at UCCS makes for a packed schedule.
“We woke up super freaking early, because our first practice was always at like 6:15 in the morning,” explained Macias. “We’d go to the weight room and either have lifting or conditioning, depending on what day it was. We would all shower there and then go to campus and go to school for a little bit. Sometimes, if you were cutting weight, you would do a run in the middle of the day, then go back to class and then to nighttime practice. After that, sometimes you would go to class and sometimes you were done. Sometimes, you also had a side job you had to do. It was a lot of practice, school, work, practice, school, work.”
Most would assume the environment would be a hotbed of burnout. Throwing a bunch of kids who were in their late teens and early twenties into that type of routine seems like a lot. However, there are many focused people there that others can look to for inspiration. Macias found inspiration in a famous gold-medalist speed skater.
“Apolo Ohno was friends with a lot of my friends,” Macias said. “We would see him, and I really admired how disciplined he was. I think it put me in a different mentality as well. We would be hanging out and barbecuing with friends, and he would still be very strict about what he was eating and all that. We were coming straight from high school and people were eating junk food, and you just kind of see that different mentality in people who want to be the best in the world.”
Macias, like the others, was also pursuing a college degree. About halfway through her eight-year tenure at the USOTC, she finally decided to wrap up her school work.
“I did have to change my major a lot, because I originally wanted to get into some type of mathematics and whatnot, but at the time, we had laptops, and you couldn’t really show your work, so I would be overseas in Europe or somewhere trying to turn in my homework, and they‘re like, ‘You didn’t show any of your work,’” explained Macias. “I’d be like, ‘I can’t, because I’m on a laptop.’ It was really tough. I ended up with a communications degree. At one point, the very last semester of college, I ended up only doing domestic tournaments for judo. It was 2010, and it wasn’t a big year or anything, so I took a semester off of traveling internationally. Then, I finished college.”
After completing her degree at UCCS, Macias was starting the downhill slide in her judo career. She has been competing for most of her life, and the judo landscape was starting to change. Some of the changes were not well received.
“I remember there being a shift in my mentality when judo changed the rules and you couldn’t grab the legs anymore,” Macias said. “You couldn’t do double legs, single legs, firemen. There was just so much you couldn’t do, and at the time, I had already been doing judo like 19 years, and I was coming into my 20th year feeling very burned out. I remember I was in Argentina or Uruguay — somewhere in South America — and I got off the mat and looked at my coach, and I was bummed. I didn’t love it anymore like I used to. It was really tough. When you don’t know anything else, it was a very tough mentality to be in.”
Macias was at a turning point in her life. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do next, so she took some time off to head back to Southern California, home to not only her family, but her lifelong friend Rousey. The two met through judo as kids, grew up together, competed together, and have a special bond. They had spent a lot of time in each other’s home, their families are friends, and Macias needed some guidance.
“My coach knew I was getting burnt out, so he sent me home to Los Angeles for a month, and I hadn’t been home for a whole month since I went to the Olympic Training Center,” Macias said. “I stayed with Ronda, and she made really good points. She knows judo, and she knows the lifestyle, and she told me, ‘What is it really going to do for you? If you win a medal, it might have changed your month, but it’s not going to change your life.’
“Ronda talked me into [MMA]. When I was doing judo, I would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I would never do MMA.’ I wanted to be done with cutting weight and traveling and everything when I was done with judo. That was my mentality. And, honestly, MMA was awesome. I could grab the legs again, and I could do all my old judo throws. Something about it just sparked inside of me. I remember the first time I learned to jab, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be so much fun.’ All of a sudden, I had fire in me again.”
With this new flame burning, Macias officially retired from judo in 2014. She eventually began training in MMA. She kicked off her amateur career in 2016, going 3-0 before transitioning to professional status in June 2018 at V3 Fights 69 in Memphis, Tenn., not far from where she was training in Nashville. She later transitioned from Nashville back to Colorado with her partner.
“I have a lot of friends in Colorado,” Macias said. “One friend, who used to be on Team USA Boxing, told me to come out, because she has her own gym in Boulder. I came to visit, and when I came to visit — I know a lot of people in the fight world — they had me go train at 303 [Training Center] with Rose [Namajunas], and I also go to meet everyone from Elevation Fight Team, and I was just like, this is where I need to be. I need to be at Elevation Fight Team. My partner, Lin, and I packed up my Prius and our dog and moved to Colorado. The coaches at Elevation are just who I belong with.”
After winning her pro debut with a first-round armbar, Macias last competed at Legacy Fighting Alliance 57 just outside of Denver. She won her fight with a verbal tap in round two and now has a combined pro and amateur record of 5-0. Her opponents are quickly learning how fitting her moniker, “PITA,” is, but that call sign actually has nothing to do with MMA.
“I’ve had that nickname longer than I’ve been alive,” Macias admitted. “I had that nickname in utero. When my mom was pregnant with me, I guess I had a bunch of, like, issues, and the doctors actually told my parents that I was deformed and I wouldn’t live a normal life, and he actually suggested aborting me. Luckily, one of my uncles is a doctor and thought that was crazy and too early in the pregnancy. My dad would just say, ‘She’s just a pain in the ass, and she’s not even born yet.’ When I was actually born, the doctor was telling my mom, ‘She’s not coming yet,’ and luckily, as the doctor was putting his gloves on, the nurse caught me, and one of the things my dad said was, ‘See, she’s a pain in the ass.’”
If there was one thing the doctor was right about, it’s that “PITA” certainly would not live a normal life. She is a role model, an Olympic-level athlete, and an apparent prodigy in MMA, even at age 30.
“I’m ready to keep going,” Macias said. “I’m not old [and] I’m not young, but I’m an athlete, and I know how to keep going. I know the mentality it takes, so I’m ready. I really rely on my coaches to guide me. I’m ready to just fight. I want to get my record up and get to the UFC.”
The next stop on her journey to the coveted Octagon takes place on Friday night at the Dobson Ice Arena in Vail, Colo. LFA 65 marks the promotion’s second visit to the famed ice-skating venue, but the altitude and venue itself is familiar territory for the former judoka.
“I’ve actually fought at the Dobson Arena before in judo,” Macias said. “I’ve actually felt that altitude before. It was for the President’s Cup for USA. It was one of the best tournaments I’ve ever had in my life. I won a gold there, and I’m excited to go back. I know what that altitude feels like, but I also know how to push through it.”
Her next opponent is Dr. Sarah Shell, who is 31 years old and fights out of Phoenix Ariz., sporting a 1-1 pro record. Shell had a long amateur record, but she has been on the bench since 2014.
“I don’t know a whole lot,” Macias admitted. “I know she’s a doctor and she took some time off, and it’s like a comeback for her. I don’t know a whole lot about her, but fighting in judo, you didn’t know if they were right-handed or left-handed, because you had so many opponents in one day.”
No stranger to tough competition and tough environments, Macias is more than ready for her next challenge. Between the long road, supportive friends and family, and one of the best fight teams in the country, it will be really exciting to see where her path takes her in her anything-but-normal life.
“I want people to see a different style of fighter than they’ve ever seen,” said Macias. “I know people like to compare me to Ronda, but our judo styles were really different and our MMA styles are very different. I really want people to see how well rounded I am now.”