Through the tears, the nightmares, the gut-wrenching hurt that no family should have to endure, Sara McMann was the glue. "If she hadn't kept going," says her father, Tucker, of Sara's pursuit of an Olympic gold medal, "I don't know what we would've...." His voice trails off.
On Monday night, in the finals of the 63-kilogram (138.5 pounds) class in the first Olympic women's freestyle wrestling tournament, it was McMann herself who came a little unglued. She built a 2-0 lead on Japan's Kaori Icho and appeared to be the superior wrestler but surrendered three second-period points, including a takedown in the final minute, to lose 3-2 and finish with a silver medal. "I don't think there's anything more painful in the world," said McCann when asked how hard it was to have come up short.
There is, of course, and McMann has been through it. Her older brother, Jason, who used Sara as "his wrestling dummy" when she wasn't even in kindergarten, turned up missing in Lock Haven, Pa., where he lived, in January 1999. It wasn't until three months later that his decomposed body was discovered, and it wasn't until three years later that his alleged killers were apprehended. Jason was allegedly murdered because he was helping a cousin recover money he had lost in a marijuana deal.
"It was almost Gable-like," says Sara's boyfriend, Steven Blackford, referring to U.S. wrestling great Dan Gable, whose sister was murdered. "Just as Gable drew strength from it, so has Sara."
McMann was the most successful of a Fab Four of America's women wrestlers, all of whom had to compete, explain why they chose an activity known for catastrophic weight loss and cauliflower ears, and deconstruct the gravitas of the moment, which they did with intelligence and humor. Asked if there was any sport in which women could not compete, Patricia Miranda, a bronze medalist at 48 kg (105.5), said no, "unless you can convince me that a penis is absolutely necessary." Toccara Montgomery (72 kg, 158.5) lost to five-time world champ Kyoko Hamaguchi of Japan in the first round and couldn't wrestle her way back, and Tela O'Donnell (55 kg, 121) scored an early pin but lost her next three bouts.
McMann plans to pursue a doctorate in psychology and will be following the trial in Lock Haven, but from a distance. "Time has eased the pain," she says. "And my consolation is that I know my brother would've been proud of me whatever happened." ‚ñ†