From medallist to mentor

GLEN DAWKINS -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 12:27 PM ET

Every four years, when the world's attention turns to the Olympics, Mark Berger makes a trip down to his safety deposit box at the bank. There he takes out one of his most prized possessions: his bronze medal from the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

"Every four years, during the Olympic year, I do a little show and tell for my kids at school, so that they can touch the medal," said Berger, who became only the second Canadian and the first in 20 years to medal in judo.

Even though more than 20 years have passed since that career highlight, Berger hasn't tired of recounting his Olympic experience.

"It's a dream of every amateur athlete to make it to the Olympic Games," said Berger, Judo Manitoba's head coach and a teacher at Ralph Brown School. "In my case, just to make it was an achievement. To win a medal was a bonus."

An immigrant from Ukraine in 1977, Berger had to wait until he got his citizenship before he could compete for his adopted land. He earned his first international medal for Canada in 1980, a bronze at the United States Open.

By the time the 1984 Olympics came around, Berger was at the top of his game, with gold medals from the 1982 U.S. Open and 1983 Pan American Games to his credit. While the boycott by the Soviet Bloc countries for the 1984 Olympics affected many of the events, it did nothing to take the shine off Berger's medal.

In 1984, as it is today, the top judo countries were Japan, Korea, France, Holland and West Germany. With his combination of size, speed and skill, Berger was predicted to win a medal no matter who did or didn't show up.

Times were tough for amateur athletes back in 1984. Berger had just been hired at Ralph Brown School. While his new bosses gave him time off to train and compete, it was a tough juggling act.

"I had to work and put food on the table," recalled Berger, the 1983 Manitoba Male Athlete of the Year who was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Judo Canada Hall of Fame in 1996.

A broken leg in 1988 put an end to his Olympic aspirations. While he recovered in time for the 1988 world championships, the end of his competitive career was in sight.

"My body was telling me before (to quit)," said Berger.

He finally started to pay attention.

Berger got into coaching right away, serving as assistant provincial coach and opened his own club: West Kildonan Judo Club out of Ralph Brown School.

Three years ago, he began as provincial head coach.

These days, Berger is content to coach and watch the exploits of his daughters, Lena and Olia, who are both black belts. Lena teaches and coaches at General Byng School, while Olia is making a name for herself on the international judo scene.

Last month, Olia won a silver medal at the Judo World Cup in Leonding, Austria, to qualify for the 2005 world championships in Cairo, Egypt, in September.


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