ATHENS, Greece -- When Sara McMann first wanted to wrestle on the school's boys team, her mother refused to sign the release papers. "I didn't like the idea of her being touched by boys and having them put her in those holds and touching her crotch."
And then came the phone call from the school's football coach.
"He said, 'Mrs. McMann, I just want to thank you. You did the right thing,' " Paula McMann recalled Monday. "I asked him what he meant and he said, 'Girls shouldn't be wrestling. Women belong in the kitchen cooking and having babies.' "
"I told him, 'You better get ready to see her on the wrestling mat because I'm signing those papers.' I can't believe he had the balls to say that. I was the first female tower crane operator in America and he thought my daughter was supposed to be barefoot and pregnant?"
And so began a career that would take McMann to every place she could find willing to let her wrestle, from towns so small "they didn't have a stoplight" to the pinnacle of sport itself, the Olympics. In the women's debut at the Olympics Monday, McMann won a silver medal in the women's 139-pound class, and U.S. teammate Patricia Miranda won the bronze in the 106-pound division.
Not that McMann was satisfied with her silver -- she wore an intense grimace as well as her olive wreath on the podium after a heart-wrenching one-point loss to two-time world champ and rival Kaori Icho of Japan. Then again, you don't overcome as much as she did by being satisfied with second-best.
All these women overcame a lot on the way to the Olympics. "Every woman on the team has a story like Sara's only they're all different in their own ways," said Tom Tomeo, a coach with the national women's development program.
Women's wrestling may finally be recognized by the Olympics, but it's still enough of a fringe sport in the United States that there are only 19 colleges with a program and precious few high schools that accept it. Resistance to the sport is such that a fan on the bus to the softball final said, "I went to wrestling this morning. And you know what? There were women wrestling."
Yeah, can you believe it? And not only that, they're eligible to vote, too.
How much public perception is there left to overcome? Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a crack about mud wrestling during an appearance with the U.S. team earlier this year.
Rulon Gardner does not have to put up with that sort of thing.
"For the most part, if you're talking to 100 men's wrestling coaches about women's wrestling, 80 aren't listening or are putting it down," U.S. coach Terry Steiner said earlier this summer. "It's something where we have to figure out how do we get this movement going. The attitude has to change."
It just might with the two Olympics medals, though there still are a lot of parents to be won over, just as McMann's parents were.
"When she first started out, I'd see how bruised her face would be after
practice and she would be so sore," Paula McMann said. "It was very hard at first but after the first couple weeks she made some friends with the boys -- she's still in touch with some of them -- and she was happy. And when we saw that she was happy, we were happy."
McMann lost to Icho by one point in overtime at last year's world
championship and was determined to beat her for the Olympic gold. She nearly pulled it off, too. She led 2-0 with a pair of takedowns in the first period and could have had more. The referee initially awarded her a one-point takedown, but the judges momentarily increased it to two points during a tape review, only to cut it back to one point after another review.
Icho scored two one-point takedowns in the second period to tie the match, then scored a third point on another takedown with 21 seconds remaining to win the gold.
"We wanted to get medals to bring back to the U.S. and we did that," Tomeo said. "We're right around critical mass right now. Everything started off small and built slowly. We're starting to find pockets in the country where it's ready to blossom."