McMann finds solace in wrestling

Updated: August 12, 2004, 8:57 PM ET
By Sherry Skalko | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- Sara McMann didn't really have a choice but to start wrestling. Three years older, her brother, Jason, needed a practice partner, and who better a candidate than his little sister?

Sara McMann
After her brother's murder, Sara McMann diverted all of her attention to wrestling. Five years later, she's an Olympian.
A childhood of serving as a wrestling dummy during the week and attending her brother's tournaments on the weekends led McMann down the same path. Those paths diverted when she was 9. Her brother was hit by a car, breaking both of his legs and crushing his hips. He learned to walk again, she said, but he was never the same wrestler.

Then, once again tragedy struck the McMann family. On Jan. 22, 1999, Jason McMann disappeared. He was 21 years old and would never be seen alive again.

"It was probably a good three years before I came to terms with it," said McMann, who'll represent the United States in the 63 kg (139 pounds) division. "My older brother was everything to me."

It took nearly three months before the family knew what had happened. They moved from North Carolina to Lock Haven, Penn., where they had once lived, to be closer to family and pursue the case. It wasn't until their father, Thomas McMann, had a chance meeting with a man who worked on "America's Most Wanted" that any progress was made.

A witness came forward and Fabian Smart, 24, a former Lock Haven University football player, was charged with McMann's murder. According to The Associated Press, the witness testified last month that Jason McMann was knocked unconscious by Smart during a fight at a party and was later put in the trunk of Smart's car. The witness accompanied Smart to a secluded area, 20 miles south of Lock Haven, where Smart allegedly beat Jason McMann several times in the head and left him to die. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, claiming the death occurred while Smart committed another felony -- kidnapping -- and that the death was related to the drug trade.

At the time of her brother's death, Sara was 18 and a freshman on the men's wrestling team at the University of Minnesota-Morris. With her resolve already hardened by the criticism and name calling while growing up a wrestler, McMann kept the news to herself. Her coach didn't know until just prior to the national tournament when she told him she had to go home for her brother's funeral.

Instead, McMann diverted all of her attention to wrestling.

"For me, it's easier to be a workaholic; I just throw myself into work," she said. "Everyone deals with things differently. I wasn't going to crumble and sit around and feel sorry for myself, so I just started overworking. "My grades dipped because of a lack of focus, but I worked really hard in wrestling just to exhaust myself and run myself ragged to the point I couldn't think."

In the process, McMann has found a positive focus. When she was growing up, McMann's biggest goal was to wrestle in high school. Now, she's a role model for other young girls.

"I didn't look too far ahead because it wasn't in the Olympics then," she said. "I'm more a person who sets a goal, focuses on that and as soon as I reach it, I immediately reset it. As soon as I won nationals, I was like I've got to make the world team; as soon as I made the world team, gotta win world championships. So as soon as it was added, gotta win the Olympics. It was just me resetting myself for the highest possible goal each time."

McMann very well might reach that goal. She has defeated most of the top athletes in her weight class, including Kaori Icho of Japan, whom she lost to at the 2003 World Championships. Though it was the third straight match she dropped to Icho, Mann said she dominated parts of all three matches, can pinpoint her mistakes and is confident she won't be repeating them.

Plus, she'll be using her role as a pioneer as motivation, as will the rest of the U.S. women's wrestling team.

"We all are unique in the fact that we had to struggle. We were not wanted in a lot of wrestling rooms, couldn't find partners, so we had to fight just to become good wrestlers," McMann said. "So that same fight is what's going to make us gold medalists, that grit, that determination, that 'you will not stop me. I did not have an easy road and I'm not going to let you be any kind of obstacle to me. I will go right through you if I have to.'

"I'd rather be the one who has that, it just gives us a little bit more of a fight."

She'll be fighting for her family, as well, because what was partly born from pain and grief provides her family the most happiness.

"I think it will be a lot more wonderful for all of us to finish our grieving, whenever the process is all over with. But my parents, the way it was put to me, is that the things that I'm doing is giving them a ray of hope," McMann said. "I've helped my family carry through this by having so much positive to bring back to this. It's given them a different focus and something positive in light of the tragedy."

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