Champion finds more in sport than violence

January 20, 1991|By Sharman Stein | Sharman Stein,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Seeing the scale read 158 does not dismay Diana Bridges the way it might another weight-conscious woman. Nor does finding her 5-foot-9-inch frame flat on its back, knocked unconscious -- or, more likely, standing over somebody else whom she has thrown to the ground or has clinched in an armlock.

Bridges, 26, is a rare breed in the United States, a female judo champion in a country that has barely given the Japanese sport a chance.

And Bridges has done more than win matches against the few other U.S. women who participate in the sport. Ranked first in her weight class in the nation, she has been rated as high as fifth worldwide and is expected to be on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona, Spain, when women's judo will be part of the Games for the first time.

The way Bridges tells it in her deep, controlled voice, judo is more than one of the martial arts, more than a seemingly violent method of self-defense. She describes it as a controlled, graceful system of physical strategy where the object is to use your opponent's weight and momentum to disrupt the balance and eventually conquer the foe.

Also key, she said, is the ability to control anxiety and adrenaline, saving it for the critical moment during a match.

"It builds self-esteem; it gives you confidence," said Bridges, who fell in love with the sport at age 9 when the boy next door took it up.

"When I look back at being a little kid and seeing my friend's muscles, I wanted to be physically strong," she said. "It takes a certain kind of person, because it takes a long time to get good. You have to be patient -- and determined."

Bridges has been both. In competition since childhood, she was 12 when she began practicing judo and beating girls in the senior level, ages 17 and older. Urged on by her father, who thought she lacked competition in her age group, Bridges said, she was initially scared but overcame the fear and won her first senior national championship in Chicago when she was 13.

She attended the University of Pittsburgh for about a year and was then invited to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She left college, thinking she could return, and went to Colorado for four years.

Since moving to Chicago's North Side a few years ago, she has worked odd jobs in construction to support herself and pay for private coaching. She also competes whenever possible in national and international tournaments, recently winning the Pan American championship in her weight class in Caracas, Venezuela.

"Diana is obviously outstanding," said John Saylor, coach of the U.S. national judo training squad at the Olympic Training Center. "She has arrived at it differently than many other men and women at the top of the sport. She didn't have what could be tTC classified as natural ability, and she lacked the technical skills when she started out. . . . But her strongest asset was her physical strength and the right mindset. She is aggressive, but she doesn't crumble under pressure. And she is very, very determined."

Looking ahead to the Olympics, Bridges said she is not worried about gaining a spot on the seven-member U.S. women's team. Her biggest worry is to be sharp enough to compete against her well-trained international opponents, many of whom are subsidized by their governments and who have better and more plentiful competition to practice against.

The dearth of U.S. competitors means she must often travel for competition, but potential corporate sponsors refuse to provide funding for such endeavors until the U.S. Olympic teams are chosen in January 1992.

What she looks forward to, Bridges said, is winning a gold medal and then opening a school, perhaps to teach children, future women's teams and rape-prevention classes.

"Every woman can be strong if she knows a few things, but women are conditioned to feeling weak," she said. "If the technique is right, any woman could throw a person of any weight."

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