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Sandy Keenan
February 10, 1986
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."
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February 10, 1986

Martial Arts Champ Brenda Maxey Is Grappling With Men's Wrestling

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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."

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