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Original Issue

Handle At Your Own Risk

Don't mess with Ingrid Berghmans. Belgium's world judo champion tears through opponents—and through life, too

When three-time world judo champion Ingrid Berghmans was 17, her mother tried to change her style of walking. It was, well, too athletic, not feminine enough. Mrs. Berghmans wanted Ingrid to "walk like a woman." The daughter would have none of it. It was obvious that she was a woman. Why did she have to please someone else? She walked the way she walked.

That's Ingrid, and if some still believe women don't have the right to sweat and win without apology—or sport pumped-up, Nautilus-constructed biceps just like the big boys—she's impressive evidence to the contrary. Now Berghmans, a Belgian, carries the case further. Ingrid, you see, is as much today's female as she is the modern athlete. Big, blonde and beautiful, fearless, with her eye squarely fixed on the horizon, she wants it all. Television, movies, the Olympics. Go for it and get it. She has just recently been offered a contract by International Management Group, and IMG's Chuck Bennett says admiringly that he sees her as "a female Terminator."

Berghmans doesn't think much of leg lifts or wearing headbands that are color coordinated with your aerobics outfit or any of that other cutesy-poo pseudo-workout stuff—sorry, Miss Fonda. Berghmans is the world champion in a brawling kind of sport that a few years ago would have been considered entirely inappropriate for her sex. She snickers at the thought. She could take on a saloon full of wild-eyed, veined-out bruisers and flip them over her shoulder and have them on the floor crying uncle. When she visited New York City recently, one of the things she wanted to do was walk on the wild side: 42nd Street. Then she wanted to take the subway. Ain't nobody gonna mess with Ingrid.

No question, Berghmans is the flag bearer for women's judo, probably the best ever in the sport. In the last seven years she has won a medal in every major international competition save two. She has won all three world championships since the first in 1980 and two gold medals in 1984, in different classes. Says her friend and mentor, Rusty Kanokogi, coach of the U.S. women's team, "It's a goal just to score on her." She is an awe-inspiring bundle of vitality, strength and agility who grooves on pushing everything to the limit. She is a friend of King Baudouin of Belgium, who regards her, as do most of his countrymen, as a national treasure. Her picture is seen on billboards, in magazines, on television. Four times she has been named sportswoman of the year in Belgium, and whenever she is out in public, there follows in her wake a murmur of "Ingrid!"

Says Jean-Marie Dedecker, her coach with the Belgian national team, "She is the most popular athlete in our country. In Japan, where the sport is very popular, they follow her with television cameras. There is no one like her. Judo is 50 percent character—to be tough, to be able to cry but stay on the mat, to withstand pain. Then 20 percent is talent, and 30 percent is train, train, train. This one, what she has adds up to 200 percent. She has to win."

Spunky—there's a term from Barbara Stanwyck's heyday—fairly describes her. If it's fun and puts a thrill up and down her spine, she wants to do it, whether it's flying down the FDR Drive in New York City in a Corvette convertible at 3 a.m. or wearing out the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island. There are no stuffed animals on her bed. Berghmans loves race cars, and she competed last year in the arduous 22-day Paris-to-Dakar road race, much of it through African desert. She and her boyfriend, Robert Van de Walle, Belgium's 1980 Olympic gold medal judo player, were not on the best of terms for a while, probably because when Ingrid returned from one of her trips to the U.S. she had all of these photos taken at male hootchy-kootchy shows. The snapshots show her kissing the dancers. "I like to kiss them," says Ingrid. "They work very hard on their bodies."

Berghmans is 24, in her case an age that straddles the worlds of child and adult. At a judo clinic she gave during the summer in Bruges, Belgium, when people heard someone clump, clump, clumping across the floor, making a commotion instead of saying hello, they did not even have to look up to know it was Berghmans. If she calls to someone and they don't hear her, she puts her fingers to her mouth and gives an ear-piercing whistle.

She wears sweat shirts with cartoon characters on the back, and when she breaks into a jog, she makes motorcycle sounds, like a kid. Even standing around doing nothing, Berghmans rocks back and forth energetically, ready to get on with it, humming to herself. She never drinks coffee; in her hyperactive body, caffeine would be a dangerous drug.

Berghmans lives in the village of Weerde, some 20 miles outside of Brussels, but her real home is the nearest gymnasium. She can slither the length of a basketball court on her back in what seems like no time at all. Then she rolls onto her stomach, and, using only her arms, she pulls herself down to the other end. Next, she goes down the floor on her hands and knees, with a man standing on her back. Then somebody else wraps himself around her and dangles underneath her as she repeats the process. Finally, she does 50 sit-ups so fast they are impossible to count. Now she is ready to begin some real work: an hour or so of throwing men around like rag dolls and squirming about on the floor, her body contorted every which way as she attacks and escapes. (Judo players, Ingrid in particular, are like frisky puppies. In a group, they are always grabbing, tripping, putting headlocks on one another.)

When she is training hard, Berghmans usually does workouts like this a couple of times daily, interspersing them with weight conditioning and running. Once Barbara Classen of West Germany, one of her rivals, was asked what it was about Berghmans that so intimidated opponents. Classen made a beating motion on her chest, imitating King Kong. "Ingrid has such a strong image," she said.

Part of Berghmans' image is her stunning looks. She's tall, an inch under 6 feet, with a roosterish shock of blonde hair that she keeps cut short like some punk rocker. She has been wooed by Playboy to display her charms undraped but turned down the offer. She's no prude; in fact, you can put on your mirrored sunglasses and catch her act on Europe's nude beaches during the summer. And she has a healthy appreciation of the human body, an awesome model of which she currently is driving. It's just that she simply isn't interested in selling herself that way. "I don't need it," says Berghmans. "People say, 'Dumb blonde.' They say a girl is pretty, but she can do it only with her body. I can do judo. I can race cars. I can do other things than just stand there and smile."

She started out trying to please her father, Gos, a truck driver who wanted boys. Instead, along came Ingrid, and about two years later, Brigette. The family lived in Leopoldsburg, a town in northeast Belgium. "He taught me to be strong, hard and not to cry," says Ingrid. At nine she took up judo and in 1978 won her first Belgian championship. But she really was not very good, and before matches she would be so nervous that she would get sick to her stomach.

The first women's world championships were held in New York in 1980. Berghmans, then 19, was there and almost hysterical. Minutes before going onto the mat she told a coach, "This is my last fight. I am going to put judo in the closet after this." Then she went out and in 80 seconds won the world title, defeating 30-year-old Paulette Fouillet of France. Back in Belgium, the king and prime minister sent telegrams of congratulation, and Leopoldsburg threw such a celebration that the town florists ran out of flowers.

"In the first days it was wonderful to be champion, but then I didn't feel so well in my skin," says Berghmans, who speaks Flemish, French and English. "I had to train, and do my schoolwork, and suddenly all these people are falling on my head for interviews and parties. It was six months before I learned to say no. I was only 19. I didn't know if it was polite."

But probably her most remarkable achievement was winning the European title in Landskrona, Sweden earlier this year. She wrecked her right knee in a quarterfinal match with Menchu Gutierrez of Spain, tearing one ligament in two and badly stretching another. A doctor said it would be ridiculous to try to go on competing, but Berghmans returned to the mat and won her semifinal match against France's Natalina Lupino. To his protégée, Dedecker growled, "You must be tough." To a friend he said, "I am not worried. She is a winner. She is like a soldier marching to the front when she goes to the mat...she was born for judo."

Ninety seconds before the end of the final, Berghmans came from behind and with a deft throw slammed Classen to the mat. "She wins just on one leg," Dedecker said, recalling the event later. "I think she is so good, she should fight on no legs." Across from him, Berghmans glowed.

Dedecker himself has a lump that sticks up ominously from his shoulder. Judo players constantly suffer injuries. Berghmans had an operation on her right shoulder last year. Now she is rehabilitating her knee, following surgery. Toes and fingers are always being sprained. "With judo, we do it because we love it—we love to suffer," says Dedecker.

"You do it for yourself," says Berghmans. She shakes her head and scoffs at those who let pain get in the way. "They come off the mat and say 'I'm bleeding.' So what? What's a little blood? It'll stop." When she is teaching a class, Berghmans is forever shrieking, "Fight, fight, fight!" Slackers she gives a shove or a kick, to get them going. "Lazy," she scolds.

For all she puts into it, though, judo is not enough for Berghmans. "I like anything new," she says. "I wish I had two bodies, because with my other body I would do what now I have no time for. Still, I'm so happy, I'm doing so much that I want. I wouldn't change my life for someone else."

Kanokogi has presented Ingrid with a silver star that she wears proudly around her neck and has promised her a gold star if she wins a medal when women's judo debuts as an Olympic event in 1992. That seems far away, but chances are, Berghmans will be there. Judo has transformed her and given her a life she never imagined, and it is unlikely that she will abandon it with the Olympics in view. "Every fight is a new fight," she says. "When I go to the worlds, I don't say, 'I won it four times.' I say, 'I'm going to win it a fifth time.' I see new girls who come up and they win and they get a big head and they lose. It's easier to get your first gold medal than to get another one."

On her visits to the U.S., Berghmans has been surprised at Americans, particularly the women, and their phobias. "They are afraid of everything," she says. "Afraid to fly, afraid to walk down the street, afraid to take chances, afraid to try new things. I try to change them, but it is difficult."

Always willing to try, never constrained by convention, born without fear. Put those things together, and you have Berghmans, who lives—and walks—like a champion.



Berghmans, easy on the hunks at Manhattan's Chippendales, was tough on Barbara Classen at the European championships.



[See caption above.]



Berghmans works out with her bicycle at home in Weerde and with practice mate Elizabeth Karlsson (below) in Stockholm.



Even on her morning run with a friend's dog, Bill, Berghmans attracts attention.