The loudspeaker at the Illini Open wrestling tournament blared: "Breitbarth of North Central College and Maxey of Northern Illinois, report to Mat 3 for the 118-pound wrestle-backs."
Referee Bill Shreve had been working Mat 3 like a revolving door all morning, so when Maxey arrived on the mat wearing a T shirt—a rules violation—he had little patience. "You've got to take off that white T shirt," he said.
"I can't," said Maxey.
Shreve turned to the Northern Illinois trainer. "Is there any medical reason why he can't take his T shirt off?" No medical reason, but uh....
February 10, 1986
The referee turned back to Maxey: "Take it off."
"I can't," said Maxey. "I'm a girl."
The only female college wrestler in America—Brenda Day Maxey—has learned to live with the bizarre and ridiculous. The day she went out for the Northern Illinois men's team, the assistant coach, passing out forms to the new wrestlers, was so startled when he got to her, he blurted out, "It's got bumps."
Yes, it has bumps, plus a husband, three cats and a world title in a sport you've probably never heard of. What's more, this 5'1", 118-pound junior is competing in NCAA Division I wrestling right there in the heartland, where the really good wrestlers have at one another.
Brenda played Little League and Babe Ruth baseball in her hometown of Fredonia, N.Y. and has competed in road races, ski marathons and triathlons. She made the Olympic cycling development team and trained for a couple of months as the only female rider at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She holds a black belt and has won three national titles in judo.
But the sport she really excels in is too obscure for Trivial Pursuit. Name the Balkan sport that combines the finesse of judo and the strength requirements of wrestling.
If you came up with the answer samoborona Bes Orusyia, roll again. That's the official name for what is known in the U.S. as sambo wrestling. The full name translates roughly as self-defense without weapons. It's not unusual for top-line people in this sport to end up breaking their opponents' bones to get them to submit. Maxey won her third world women's sambo title in Balboa, Spain last May. Now she has two immediate goals: making the U.S. Olympic Judo team in 1988 and the U.S. Olympic Sambo team in 1992, if it has become an Olympic sport by then.
Maxey decided wrestling would improve her sambo technique. As a freshman at Northern Illinois, the hyper special-education major bounded into coach Don Flavin's office, told him all about sambo and asked to join his team.
"I'll do anything I can to help out a world-class athlete," says Flavin, the Mid-America Conference Coach of the Year in 1985. "But there was no way I felt Brenda would survive the grueling preseason in wrestling." At first her teammates reacted the way young boys often react to girls—they ignored her. But she just kept doing what everyone else did in practice. She carried other wrestlers horseback up the stadium ramps, lifted weights and on the final day of preseason training finished seventh of 30 in a 13-mile run. The young men started talking to the young woman.
Then it was time to get down to wrestling. "There was some reluctance at first," says Flavin, "mainly because there are some positions in wrestling that are, shall we say, compromising." In time the male wrestlers utilized all the usual holds, compromising or not, as did Maxey. "I'm more worried about hurting the guys than that they'll hurt me," she says.
As for the NCAA rules, they allow women to compete with men in wrestling. "We've had a little trouble weighing in, though," says Flavin. The rules say a competitor must be weighed naked. One Northern Illinois assistant coach was particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of weighing Maxey in, but Flavin makes sure women are available for the task.
Last season, as a sophomore, Maxey never made the first team for varsity matches but wrestled to a 3-8 record in open tournaments in which Northern Illinois competed. One of her three wins came because her opponent refused to wrestle a woman and another came because an opponent gave a medical excuse—but the third was just a plain old-fashioned victory, by a score of 3-3 (in wrestling one can tie on points but win on "criteria"), at the Stevens Point Open. When it was clear that Maxey's takedown, a double leg, had given her the match over Keith Henslin of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the crowd started chanting, "Brenda, Brenda, Brenda." In 32 years of coaching, Flavin had never seen anything like it. "What the heck am I getting into," he thought. Henslin's reaction was a bit different. He was so ashamed of losing to a girl that he pounded his head against the stands. Later he admitted, "She beat me fair and square."
With its 13-3 record, the Northern Illinois team was the class of the MAC last year, but Maxey got most of the attention. THE GUYS FALL FOR BRENDA read one front-page headline in the Chicago Sun-Times. The David Letterman show made inquiries. "I'd like to go on and throw him around a little," says Maxey.
Wind radio did a series of people-on-the-street interviews in Chicago. "What do you think about a woman wrestling men?" the radio reporter asked one man.
"I think it's great," the man said. "My wife and I wrestle all the time."
Flavin has tried to keep interviews dignified. "This is not a circus. We don't intend to be a freak show," he says. "Brenda is a serious athlete."
Maxey has a history of taking on a sport, squeezing all she can out of her body and her instructors, and then going on to another challenge while still competing in the previous ones. In high school she played varsity volleyball, basketball and softball before going off to the Olympic Training Center for what would have been her senior year (she graduated as a junior). There she made herself ride the same workout as Roy Knickman, a member of the '84 Olympic team. "I overtrained and burned out," admits Maxey.
For as long as she can remember, Maxey has been interested in contact sports. There have always been outlets for boys, but not for teenage tomboys. It was in Colorado Springs that Maxey, then 16 and single, discovered and fell for martial arts. Judo became her passion.
She moved to Rochelle, Ill. to train with judo instructor Bill Maxey, 35, chief scout of U.S. Judo, Inc. To support herself, she mowed lawns in a cemetery and slung pies at the local Pizza Hut, all for the privilege of working out four or five times a week with Maxey. She married him 1½ years after arriving in town.
Bill approves of his wife's wrestling—as long as it doesn't interfere with her judo and sambo competitions. He doesn't like the fact that because she is not on the Northern Illinois first team, she had to pay for her own hotel room at an away meet. "Northern Illinois eats up the publicity but won't give her a scholarship," he says.
Last fall Brenda went to see the women's athletic director, Susie Pembroke-Jones, about a scholarship. "She told me, 'We have to take care of our own first,' " says Brenda. "I got upset. I mean, what am I?"
Jerry Breitbarth didn't know who his opponent would be in the consolation round of the Illini Open last month. He kept listening for the announcements. "When they said Brenda, I said uh-oh," he recalls. "I thought, Oh man, this is it, the most important match of my life." He could see the headlines: GIRL BEATS BREITBARTH. The match went the distance, with Breitbarth winning 6-0 on points. "She's really strong," he said, gasping for breath a few seconds after it was over. "I'll tell you, she wrestles better than a lot of guys."
Maxey had a solid shot at being Northern Illinois's No. 1 wrestler in the 118-pound category this season, until Flavin recruited a top Illinois high school wrestler, Tony Calderone. The differences between the two are typical of the gap that still exists between top men and women athletes in many sports: He is stronger. Though virtually the same height and weight as Maxey, Calderone, who wrestled at 112 pounds in high school, can bench-press 235 pounds to Maxey's 170. And he has been competing longer. At seven, Calderone was the 50-pound Chicago City champ. Maxey started wrestling just two years ago. Perhaps the greatest difference is that Calderone was encouraged. "The wrestling coach in my high school wouldn't give me the time of day," says Maxey. "Imagine how good I would be now. Some days I get abused and I wonder why I'm doing this. But then I'll do something I haven't done before, and I'm so happy, I'm flying. I'm building a foundation."
Maxey is pleased with how well she now fits in on the team. Every time she takes someone down in practice, the entire team says, "Oooooooo." "She's great at underhooks," says Calderone.
For most men the prospect of losing to a woman is petrifying. Last year, a highly ranked wrestler from Louisiana State confided in Flavin that he was scared to death to face Maxey. This year, eight wrestlers came out for the 118-pound class at Northern Illinois. Only Calderone, Maxey and Jim Lancaster remain. "Everyone I could beat quit," says Maxey. "No one is going to stick around and get his butt kicked by a girl."
That's exactly what Joe Arminis of Triton College was thinking when he drew Maxey in the first round of the Illini Open. "If I had lost, I would have retired," says Arminis; he won the match easily.
Crowds always gather at Maxey's matches. While Arminis had her in a tight cradle, a heavyweight wrestler on the sidelines said, "I wish she was in my class, I'd teach her a lesson or two." But another wrestler said, "Man, you've got to give her credit."
With a freshman as talented as Calderone on the scene, Maxey's chances for wrestling at the varsity level look bleak. Still, she never misses practice.
The NCAA doesn't keep track of the number of women who participate in men's sports, but Bob Dellinger, the director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., believes Maxey is the only woman to have won a match on the mat. About a dozen elementary and junior high school girls compete in amateur wrestling events around the country each year. "But once they reach puberty," says Dellinger, "they usually get out of it."
Even though Maxey may be an oddity now, there are signs things could be changing. Girls and women seek her out for advice. Between matches recently, 16-year-old Ann'Marie Paulaskas, a 112-pounder from Posen, Ill., came to see Maxey. Paulaskas hopes to try out for the University of Illinois team as a freshman this fall. She has not been allowed to wrestle at her high school. She was giddy at the opportunity to talk to Maxey.
"What is it really like?" asked Paulaskas.
"Well, no one's going to talk to you for a while," said Maxey, "but then it'll be all right."
"Do you get beat up a lot?" asked the younger woman. Maxey said she averages between five and seven black eyes a year.
"Do you ever get to stack 'em up real nasty in a chicken wing or use a crossbar?" asked Paulaskas.
"Only in practice," said Maxey.
"Ever have trouble with cramps?" asked Paulaskas.
"My period is only a hassle when I have to make weight," said Maxey.
Paulaskas told Maxey she wrestles "in secret" because her mother doesn't approve. "Wrestling is a four-letter word to my parents, too," said Maxey.
Before the younger woman left, she thanked Maxey very much, and then the 16-year-old hopeful shook the 20-year-old veteran's hand really hard.