Sara McMann and Steven Blackford almost got married in Athens. "We talked about it, then decided against it," Blackford said. "We thought it could be distracting. She was in Athens for one thing: to get the gold."
Blackford and I were talking behind the bleachers at the wrestling hall in suburban Athens, before McMann's gold medal match against Japan's Kaori Icho in the 138 1/2-pound division of women's freestyle wrestling on Aug. 23. A muscular 28year-old who had been a three-time All-America wrestler at Arizona State, Blackford was telling me about their future plans. They would be moving to Washington, D.C., where Blackford would begin his second year at Catholic University's law school, and Sara, 23, planned to enroll at a D.C.-area university to pursue a doctorate in psychology and continue workouts at American University.
Last Friday afternoon, as they headed from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to Washington, the Jeep McMann was driving eastbound on Interstate 76 about 90 miles from Denver ran off the right side of the road and rolled over. Both were thrown from the car, and Blackford died from his injuries. McMann was treated for minor injuries and released and has been charged with misdemeanor careless driving. At week's end investigators were trying to determine if excessive speed was a factor in the crash.
McMann had already been through one unspeakable tragedy. Her brother, Jason, an outstanding junior wrestler who encouraged her participation in the sport, was murdered at age 21 in Lock Haven, Pa., in January 1999 in a case that was featured on America's Most Wanted. The trial of Fabian Desmond Smart, who is charged in the crime, is expected to begin next month in Lock Haven, where McMann's parents, Paul and Tucker, now live.
McMann had vowed to keep on competing, and Blackford had vowed to keep on supporting her. But they had other plans, too. "Eventually Sara wants to get married, raise a family, get on with the business of living," Blackford told me. "I want to be with her. She's an incredible person." As time was running out on McMann in her gold medal match--she would lose 3-2--I looked over at Blackford. He exhorted her until the end, looked down briefly in despair as the referee raised Icho's hand, then put both hands above his head and applauded. Win or lose, Blackford had seen the future and knew whom he wanted to spend it with. --Jack McCallum