En route to the WPBA, Rousey found comfort at the tables of her father’s poolhall. (Photo by Ashi Fachler)
January 21, 1993. It’s a date Rousey remembers with a jab to her soul, a date she can’t get out of her head, a date where the old Sarah died and the new one was born.
She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes — or what’s commonly referred to as juvenile diabetes.
“I was probably born with it,” she says, “and some trauma brought it out.”
After spending a week in the hospital, she emerged unmistakably changed in so many ways. She had a new set of rules, things that she could and couldn’t do anymore. She needed to prick her fingers for blood and inject herself with a painful series of insulin shots, from twice to as much as 10 times a day.
She was, without any real time to adjust, decidedly different, to where even her parents viewed her as fragile and discouraged from doing anything athletic or too taxing to the system (while her little sister, Kaeleigh, would go on to play for a national champion softball team).
She lost most of her friends, who were either scared to “catch” diabetes or started making cruel jokes about her. Her friends’ parents became afraid to have her over. And teachers didn’t want her on field trips.
It not only drove her into a shell but compelled her to do something that only two years earlier had completely bored her: She began playing pool.
“In the poolroom,” explains her mom, Kate Rousey, “people either didn’t know or didn’t care that she had diabetes.”
“It was the one place I felt like I fit in,” Sarah says.
The poolroom was Ride the Nine, owned by, among others, her dad Larry, a decent amateur player, who made his daughter first prove herself on a 7-foot table, then an 8-footer, before letting her graduate to regulation size.
Sarah was so small she needed to stand atop a teddy bear-adorned wooden stool to be able to shoot.
“It took me only six months to get on the big tables,” she says. “The game came naturally to me, and, well, I just loved it.”
“Pool lit up Sarah’s eyes like nothing else,” says her mom.
Before long, Rousey had a poster on her bedroom wall of the WPBA group shot, as well as a slew of 8x10 autographed pictures of individual players, including her favorite, Vivian Villarreal. If a top professional player came through the room to do an exhibition or play in a tournament — like when Ewa Laurance and Jeannette Lee, separately, did — Sarah became all aflutter; and her first time glued to George Breedlove inspired her to copy his “Flamethrower” 9-ball break. “I watched the way George dug his feet in and then let out this loud grunt when he came through,” she says. “I just mimicked everything he did. It was way out of control [for the] first couple of years.”
St. Louis pro Mark Wilson, one of the game’s best teachers, remembers the time he was playing in one of the Ride the Nine’s monthly tournaments and spotted this adorable little girl, who turned out to be Sarah, following him around from match to match, table to table, and ultimately sitting in the front row to watch. “After one of the matches, I finally went over and said to her, ‘I see you like pool,’” Wilson recalls. “And she says, ‘Oh, yes, I love pool. I have pictures all over my room and someday I’ll be a pool player too.’ She was totally sincere and completely passionate — a tiny bundle of enthusiasm. Then, the next second, she was pulling out a syringe and giving herself a shot. It broke my heart.”
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