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Taken down a few pegs
Dan Levin
December 15, 1980
The U.S. was the favorite at the first women's world championships in New York, but when the tournament was over it was Austria and France that were preeminent
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December 15, 1980

Taken Down A Few Pegs

The U.S. was the favorite at the first women's world championships in New York, but when the tournament was over it was Austria and France that were preeminent

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Paulette Fouillet is a 30-year-old nurse and judo player from Angers, France. The g in Angers is soft, but they didn't know that in New York's Felt Forum at the first Women's World Judo Championships on Nov. 29-30. They pronounced it with a hard g, and it did seem fitting. Fouillet's smoldering eyes were difficult to look into for long, but then almost no one had to. Her first opponent, West Germany's Christiane Kieburg, hit the mat in. 20 seconds, as if dropped from a rafter: scratch her from gold-medal contention. Ana Morales was slammed down twice in 14 seconds. That did it for Puerto Rico. New York City's Margaret Castro outweighed the 170-pound Fouillet by 20 pounds—this was the over-158-pound class, the heaviest division—but when Fouillet threw her down in one minute and 16 seconds with a hold called an arm bar, Castro tapped the mat with her hand, ending the match. With an arm bar, you give up or you get your arm broken, and there was something all too insistent in the Frenchwoman's eyes.

Judo is a sport derived from the Japanese martial art of jujitsu, which was suppressed in Japan in the mid-1800s as too lethal. In 1882 a Professor Jigoro Kano screened out jujitsu's more murderous elements to create judo, described as being to jujitsu as fencing is to sword fighting. At the Felt Forum, 135 women from 27 countries competed in an essentially round-robin format within eight weight classes, matches out of one's class occurring only in the open division.

As competition progressed, Americans could ponder how far the mighty had fallen. The U.S. has had a women's judo team only since 1976, but it dominated international competition, and Castro had been its most compelling force. In four visits to the prestigious British Open, she had won five gold medals and a bronze, in the over-158-pound and the open classes. And the rest of her team had hardly dishonored itself. However, Fouillet and the French had never competed in Britain.

Rusty Glickman Kanokogi, the 45-year-old U.S. national coach and tournament director—"My husband's from the south of Japan; I'm from the south of Brooklyn"—had been saying, "It would be enough for anyone to go home and say, 'I beat Margaret Castro,' though of course it will never happen." It did happen, although for Fouillet the victory was clearly not accomplishment enough as she sat alone, waiting for the over-158-pound finals to begin.

Kanokogi had also been touting the chances of a blocky Californian named Christine Penick, in the 145-pound class, explaining that she was famous for reaching between her opponents' legs, grabbing the inner thighs, and flipping the victims on their backs (descriptions of judo techniques often sound like directions for eating a lobster, and neither are easy to follow). But when Penick reached for Britain's Dawn Netherwood, Dawn wasn't there. Subtract another U.S. gold-medal possibility, though Penick did later defeat Belgium's Marie Mil for a bronze, the first U.S. medal in the first women's world championships.

Meanwhile, in the 158-pound class, Fouillet's countrywoman, Jocelyne Triadou, arm-barred Amy Kublin of Worcester, Mass. and went on to win the gold. At the medal ceremony she stood on the winner's platform, waiting in vain for La Marseillaise; the tape recorder had broken down. Suddenly a sizable portion of the audience rose and began to sing, one man asking his neighbor, "Remember that scene in Casablanca? When everyone in Rick's bar, and Bogey and Bergman and Paul Henreid, sang this thing?" Then the four finalists in Fouillet's division came out, and among them—who was casting director here?—was Ingrid Berghmans of Belgium. Nostalgist No. 2 said, "Of all the judo joints in the world, she had to walk into mine."

Berghmans, a 19-year-old phys ed student, won her match with Marjolein van Unen of The Netherlands and ultimately the bronze medal. Castro, still stumbling around in a daze since her run-in with Fouillet, was defeated by Kieburg, whom she had beaten for a gold at the 1978 British Open. And then came the gold-medal showdown between the 170-pound Fouillet and Italy's 260-pound Margherita DeCal. With the contours of a female Pavarotti, DeCal had been flattening opponents all day. Literally. She had been lying on them. She hadn't dropped a big match since losing to Castro in the finals of last year's British Open. Fouillet, of course, was still Fouillet.

Her lip curling, Fouillet came out fast, sidestepping, looking for an opening. DeCal, more patient and seemingly slower, waited, hands high, eyes darting and alert. Suddenly Fouillet attacked. DeCal countered. At the 50-second point they fell to the mat together, a bad place for anyone to be with DeCal, and Fouillet was underneath, the worst place of all. She stayed there for 30 seconds, until the referee shot his hand in the air, and DeCal, delighted, was Italy's first world judo champion. Fouillet, the silver medalist, said gloomily, "I attacked too early. I think it was a tactical error."

As for DeCal, she stood with her translator and a Japanese radio reporter and his translator. The reporter would ask a question and his translator posed it in English to DeCal's, who asked it of DeCal in Italian. DeCal answered in Italian and her answer was relayed in English to the Japanese translator, who replied in Japanese to the reporter.

The reporter began, "What's the most interesting part of judo to you?"

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