07/08/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
HILLARY WOLF WAS 7 WHEN SHE gave up on dance. "Ballet was so boring," she says. "I need action." Okay, no big deal. Lots of girls get tired of ballet, but they don't dump it for judo, which is what Wolf did. Then, at 15, Wolf did the unthinkable: She kissed off Hollywood. She had already appeared in 10 movies, including both Home Atones (as one of Macaulay Culkin's sisters), and had a starring role in 1992's Big Girls Don't Cry, when she decided what she really wanted to focus on: judo.
"I had to make a choice," she says. "People don't understand that—they think I'm crazy—but I realized that in order to succeed in judo I had to give up acting." Wolf, 19, may have foreclosed her chances of ever holding an Oscar, but next month, competing in the 106-pound women's class, she stands a good chance of walking off with something just as desirable—an Olympic gold medal.
The decision didn't surprise her parents, Malcolm and Marilyn—who initially objected when she borrowed her brother's uniform and announced she was going to take up judo. "When Hillary was 3," says her father, a trucking-company executive in Elk Grove Village, Ill., "she was going on 30. She was the most independent child I've ever seen, and she always thought she could do anything."
It was that independence and ambition that led her, at age 5, to audition successfully for a role in A Matter of Principle, starring Alan Arkin. Voice-overs and commercials—McDonald's, Chuck E. Cheese's and Kleenex among them—followed, along with other film roles. Though her earnings financed her judo training and travels to tournaments, showbiz didn't impress her. "Being a movie star didn't mean anything to me," she says. "Acting is work, but it's not like getting your butt thrown around in practice."
"Hillary was a very good actor," says Christopher Monger, who wrote and directed Waiting for the Light, her first feature film. "But acting wasn't going to make or break her. This wasn't the only thing in her life."
But judo? "I liked it right away," says Wolf, whose brother Brett, now 22, taught her her first basic holds and throws. When she was 14 she faced her first major challenge—the 1991 Senior National championships in Hawaii. "I thought the Senior Nationals were just too big a deal," says Wolf, who had competed only on the junior level until then. "I thought they might be so much better than me, but once I got there and started fighting, I thought, 'I know how to do this,' and I won." Wolf, who has grown two inches since then to her present height of 5'2", was the youngest competitor, male or female, in the history of American judo to win a senior championship. She repeated her victory in each of the next three years.
An Olympic medal sport for women only since 1992—men began competing regularly for gold in 1972—judo, a variation on jujitsu, the ancient Japanese form of self-defense, means literally "the gentle way." It is not, however, a sport for the meek. Like all top judo players, Wolf has received her share of injuries, including a popped knee and sore wrists. "To get good," she says, "there's a price to be paid, a physical beating." Steve Cohen, her coach at the Uptown Judo Club in suburban Buffalo Grove, Ill., often pitted her against opponents who were more advanced, just plain heavier—or male. "Hillary was always a fierce competitor," he says. "If someone beats her, she salivates for the chance to fight them again." That could be bad news for Ryoka Tamura of Japan, who defeated her in last year's World Championships in Chiba, Japan.
With the Games fast approaching, Wolf, a second-degree black belt (there are 10 degrees, starting at first), spends most of her time training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, leaving her little time for boyfriend Chris Saba, 25, whom she met a year and a half ago. Of course, Saba has his own priorities right now—as an alternate in the 149-pound division of the U.S. wrestling team. But he's a big fan of Wolf's. "She's an incredible athlete," he says. "Hillary is one of those people success really looms around."
Win or lose, Wolf, who put her college career on hold for the Olympics, will be off to Colorado College in Colorado Springs this fall. She just assumes she'll be packing a gold medal in her off-to-school luggage. "If I didn't think I could win, why would I be there?" she says. "I've never done anything halfway. I'm not going to start now at the Olympics."
BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago and Buffalo Grove