First Women’s World Championships #6 – Catching Up with Bridget McCarthy

At the tail end of 1980, in New York City, Madison Square Garden Indoor Arena, on November 29-30 a momentous event in the world of Judo took place: the first Women’s World Judo Championships.

There were seven fighters in the women’s Great Britain squad who competed in that inaugural event, and in the week leading up to the 40th Anniversary, British Judo will be posting an article written by Loretta Cusack-Doyle catching up with each member of the team, on the theme of “Where are they now?” interwoven with memories of the event from the ladies themselves from Loretta’s recent fun-filled chats with them.

Shortly after Loretta Doyle had started on Mat 1 of day 2, Bridget McCarthy, aged 20 at the time, was in action against another relatively unknown judoka from Thailand, Panthip Boriscorn in the -52kg weight category. Bridget made light work of Boriscorn and threw her for two Kokas and a Wazari before holding her and finishing it off.

Bridget then progressed on to Sacramento Moyano of Spain, who was eight years her senior but did not pose a problem and was polished off quickly with a couple of Wazari from O’Guruma and Harai.

Photo: Bridget McCarthy waving to her mum in the Madison Square crowd

The draw then took her on to meet Hrovat Edith of Austria. This was a more formidable adversary and had beaten Bridget earlier in the year in the British Open. Quite simply, Edith was aged 24 and still relatively young but was UNBEATEN in her domestic Austrian Championships in EVERY year for the past eight years in a row.

What was not known at that time is that after the 1980 Women’s World Championships, she would go on to win the Austrian Championships on a further eight occasions, making her a 16 years in a row Austrian Champion, and retire unbeaten in that competition. Austria have historically been a competitive judo nation, and Edith was a phenomenon within that country. For Bridget to make any progress against this opponent would be truly remarkable.

As it happened, she didn’t do too badly and although Edith scored a Koka by holding Bridget with a Kesa Gatame, she valiantly managed to escape this, but the damage had been done and this score was sufficient to take Edith through to the final and beating Kaori Yamaguchi to win the World Championship Gold.

This exhaustive series of bouts took Bridget to the repechage to meet Lewis Lynn of the USA, who had been three times winner in a row of the US National Championships in previous years, together with two Bronzes in the last two years. Bridget was a stylish player, and she did not disappoint again on this occasion. It was quite spectacular, and I can still see it in my minds eye to this day as she achieved a strong, aggressive high collar grip and used this to swing her opponent round to her right and spun her over for a clean, stylish, beautiful O-guruma. We had seen Bridget do this many times. It was her speciality. And so good to watch.

Photo: Bridget McCarthy on the Podium with Champion Edith Hrovat of Austria to the right

Her mum was appreciative and it was impossible not to notice her in the stands with a bright red coat, bee-hive blonde hair and the loudest voice of support in the whole stadium, not just for Bridget but the whole GB team. “That’s my Bridget”, she would inform that gathered crowds in her distinctive Irish accent loved by everyone. “Where is my Mum?”, Bridget tearfully asked when she won the Bronze medal and fourth medal for Team GB: but she really didn’t need to ask and she just followed the sound of her mum’s screams of delight to race up the terrace and embrace each other wildly. It was one of the magic moments of the competition, for everyone including spectators and opposing teams.

What does Bridget remember about the first women’s World Championships and its impact on her life and women’s judo?
What do I remember, babe, about the Worlds….?” Bridget repeated my questions in her delightful cheeky-chappy London accent, and paused. “…It was that throw, girl … for the Bronze. I loved it. She just walked on to it and whoooof … I whipped her right over and onto her back, just like that”.

And Bridget laughed as she only can in that marvellously infectious way that had me sharing with her that magic moment that lit up the whole of Madison Square Garden that day: a big stadium that erupted when their USA National Champion was dumped unceremoniously out of contention by a beautiful blonde bombshell from the GB team, who had a huge big smile on her face and lapped up the applause: quite deservedly!

If I can take a moment here to characterise Bridget, the person, and her judo in that day. The nearest modern equivalent I can thing of is Daria Bilodid, the Ukrainian current youngest World Champion twice over. Bridget was born on the Isle of Dogs, London and is full of character: a gorgeous blonde, slender, long legs and star-quality good looks, personality, and smile. But it was not just looking good on and off the mat that differentiated Bridget, it was her judo which was lightning-fast, bold, brassy, but also sophisticated and exciting. As I will mention later in this article, she did not stay in judo as an active internationalist, but had she done so, at her age and skill, who know what higher level of judo accomplishment she might have achieved. The name Daria Bilodid does not mean much to Bridget nowadays, but if I put her in context of the stars of her day, she was a blend of Emma Peel, Honor Blackman and Joanna Lumley rolled into one – exciting judo with good looks.

Photo: Bridget McCarthy and Partner Peter Scarsbrook celebrating 39 years together

Bridget McCarthy -52kg – where is she now?

Judo needed Bridget more than she needed it. She had a good job with NatWest Bank where she worked for 24 years and when that finished when the bank relocated to Milton Keynes and Bridget took the offered redundancy money, she moved on to another good role as an Immigration Officer (now known as Border Force Officer). She initially worked full-time in Dover & Calais but now works part time in St Pancras with the Eurostar train service.

After the women’s Worlds in 1980, Bridge had a lot of things going on in her life, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to continue the exhaustive and brutal training regime that was necessary to hold her place in the GB Team. “You were only as good as your last medal … one slip and you were out … and it needed a huge commitment to keep going at that level day in and day out”, said Bridget.

In the year after the women’s Worlds, Bridget was the British Trial Champion in February 1981, and a bronze at the German Open that same month – but of far more importance to Bridget at that time was the fact that she met and fell in love with Peter, a handsome man who played a lot of rugby and did a bit of amateur boxing at the time, and they have been together now for 39 years.

So, it is understandable that Bridget maybe felt that she would like to take some “time out” for herself at that time. Unfortunately, that period in her life turned into a nightmare with her beautiful and delightful mother dying young and unexpectedly with a massive heart attack within two years of the Worlds, and within four years of that, she also lost her Father. In 2004 Bridget’s sister Anne and brother Patrick both passed away in the same year, 2 months apart. It was a terrible time in her life and the prospect of returning to judo was lost against the battle of other priorities she had at that time.

Photo: Bridget’s daughter Abigail and family

What did the first women’s World give Bridget?

Nevertheless, Bridget recognises how important judo was in forming the person she is with the resilience and character she needed to go forward in life. She started her judo at Stratford Budokwai in East London where there were three main coaches – her brother, Michael McCarthy, Kenny Harris, and Mick Folger. Bridget is a twin and her sister Caroline did judo at the same time, and Bridget is happy to admit that she was her equal on that mat, and in competitions they often found themselves fighting in the finals together, which was often an uncomfortable situation to be in when they received the customary warning from their Mum not to hurt each other, or there’d be hell to play when they got back home! So, they were very much a sporting and judo family. Family values and closeness are important to Bridget and were established in the wider judo family also.

Nowadays, Bridget continues to take a keen interest in judo through her brother who still coaches at Stratford, and newspapers and TV when she can. She said that she still occasionally gets invited to judo clubs as a guest, but all she manages to do is give them a talk and rattle her medals in front of them rather than get on the mat. She talks fondly about judo’s values and does believe that judo has given her courage to face some of the crisis she has had: it taught her honesty, and she regards herself as very much a person who speaks straight and plainly and does not like lies and deceit.

Photo: Bridget’s son Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook with family

Inevitably, during my chat with Bridget we had a lot of catching up to do and she is immensely proud of the strength of her relationship with Peter her partner: they have never married, always intend to do so, but never got round to it. In the end, it did not seem that important and they gave their two kids, Louie, and Abigail the double-barrelled name of McCarthy-Scarsbrook.

Bridget and Peter now have five grandchildren, including twins, through Abigail and Louie. She sees her daughter Abigail regularly because she lives within 20 minutes of Bridget in Kent, on the edge of South East London. Her son Louie has a superb career in Rugby League and is in his Testimonial year playing for St Helens in the Betfred Super League. He has played for both England and Ireland at international level.

Photo: Bridget McCarthy and sister Caroline were judo twins – will her twin grandchildren be champion judokas too?

Bridget believes that judo gave her a hunger to achieve something in whatever she does. In her judo days, she said that she and the GB team were monumentally focussed on winning medals, as a team … the team were always out to prove something. She remembers the team as being daunting and intimidating, and thought that were a key driver to the success of the first women’s Worlds – people wanted the GB team to be there because they were “…Frightening…”.

Bridget expanded on this statement, “… do you not remember, Loretta? We used to frighten the opposition just by our presence at an event… the way we supported each other… When I watch judo nowadays, it all sort of looks meek and tidy and polite … whereas whenever we turned up, we were loud, we were noisy and we were confident … like bulls in a china shop maybe…

I was delighted when Bridget sent me photos of her and her family as they are now. Surely Bridget is testimony to the relevance of judo values and our family of judo to our lives whether in judo or in life after judo.