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.