Movie Muscle

updated 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

NO QUESTION THAT IT'S BEEN A GREAT summer for tough women onscreen. First, Susan Sarandon blew away a would-be rapist in Thelma & Louise. Then, Linda Hamilton flexed her pecs to neutralize a nasty Terminator. Meanwhile, Kathleen Turner, as leggy V.I. Warshawski fended off villains with a pistol...a nutcracker.

But when it comes to impressive moves, no one holds a barbell to Cory Everson. While making her acting debut in the new Double Impact, the former bodybuilding champ stunned action star Jean-Claude Van Damme with a karate chop to the head. "I was like, 'I'm so sorry if I hurt you,' " recalls Everson, 32, relaxing in sweats at her Spanish-style L.A. home. Van Damme, however, was thrilled. "A strong, sexy woman in a movie," he says, "is kind of scary and sensual at the same time."

With 145 muscular pounds on her 5'8" frame, Everson's impressive physical credentials are matched by an inner strength and quiet determination. Raised with her two sisters in Deerfield, Ill., middle-child Cory inherited athletic genes: Her brewmaster father, Hank Kneuer, had been a gymnast, and her bus-driving mother, Chris, a track star in their native Germany. The couple divorced when Cory was in sixth grade. "They tried to make it easy," she says. "But I've never told them how upsetting it was."

After graduating with straight A's from Deerfield High School in 1977, Cory won four Big 10 pentathlon titles at the University of Wisconsin. She began competing as a body-builder in earnest at the suggestion of her future husband, Jeff Everson, then a strength coach at the school. Jeff, 39, now an editor at Muscle & Fitness magazine, admits Cory's body was the main attraction before they wed in 1982. Says Jeff: "I'm attuned to a woman who's got curves."

Her body may have been a marvel, but a few months after graduating in 1981 with a degree in interior design, she woke up one night to find her left leg had doubled in size. The doctors were baffled, but during Everson's nine-week stay at Highland Park Hospital, the swelling decreased, and she could walk again. A blood test developed after her illness later revealed the cause: She has a rare, genetic enzyme deficiency that can cause the blood to become immobile. "If I cut my hand," says Everson, who takes aspirin to prevent blood clots, "it won't bleed."

Working diligently to regain her strength, Cory resumed competitive bodybuilding, then moved with Jeff to L. A. In 1984 she surprised everyone by becoming Ms. Olympia on her first try. In peak shape she sported thighs 23 inches around—the same as her waist. She racked up a record six Ms. Olympia titles before retiring in 1989.

These days Everson, who got the Double Impact role after meeting Van Damme in a gym, hikes two hours a day with her three dogs and alternates aerobic workouts with weight lifting. In partnership with Jeff, she markets a line of clothes and cosmetics, has released workout videos and is ready to take on all comers in future action films. "Julia Roberts isn't believable as being able to hurdle a truck and not hurt herself and go and kick two guys in the face. Nor is Meryl Streep," Everson says. "They are both great actresses, but you have to look believable."

TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

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