A former Olympian with a silver medal in wrestling is only a surface description of UFC women’s bantamweight contender Sara McMann.
From a bird’s eye view, it’s easy to appreciate the prolific grappling credentials that were attained by one of MMA’s most gifted athletes.
But McMann, a graduate out of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, attributes the brunt of her success to her older brother Jason, an instant role model who helped sow the seeds for her wrestling future.
Growing up, life was everything you’d expect from an older sibling who was enrolled in wrestling with only his baby sister to use as his personal grappling dummy. Nothing says "I love you" more than a double-leg takedown.
After serving her weekly grappling duties, McMann would travel with her brother on the weekends to his wrestling meets.
Not long after that, she was adorning the traditional singlet herself and stepping onto the mat. The personal grappling dummy soon turned into a fierce competitor and one of the top wrestlers in the nation, winning the USGWA High School National Championship in 1998.
Despite all of her early success, McMann still clung to her big brother Jason.
“My oldest brother was everything to me,” she told ESPN.com’s Sherry Skalko.
True happiness is contained in fleeting moments that we often take for granted but hold onto for a lifetime. McMann was forced to come to grips with this truth on January 22, 1999, when her brother Jason mysteriously vanished.
Pennsylvania law enforcement worked around the clock, exhausting every lead. Hours turned to days, days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months with no clue of his whereabouts. McMann, who was wrestling at Minnesota-Morris at the time, made the decision to transfer to Lock Haven University and move back to her home state of Pennsylvania to be closer to her family.
It wasn’t long after she returned home that McMann’s worst fear was realized. In April, her family was notified that Jason’s body had been found about 20 miles outside of Lock Haven in Logan Township.
She told Skalko, "It was probably a good three years before I came to terms with it...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."
Several years later, there was finally a break in the case when a witness came forward and identified Fabian Smart, a former Lock Haven football player, as Jason’s murderer. In October 2007, Smart was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
During an interview with Fox Sports, McMann tried to put into words the crippling pain of having a loved one taken from her: “Emotionally, it's the equivalent of losing a limb. You never have that limb back. You're never the same person.”
She honored Jason’s memory by continuing her wrestling career and graduating from college. By the time 2004 rolled around, things were finally starting to look up.
She earned a spot on the United States Olympic wrestling team, and she had a prominent beau in her life.
Three-time Arizona State NCAA All-American wrestler Steve Blackford, McMann’s fiance, celebrated with McMann in Athens when she became the first American woman to win an Olympic silver medal in wrestling. The couple planned to move in together immediately after the Olympics, but as fate would have it, tragedy struck again.
McMann was driving her Jeep along a Colorado highway when her vehicle ran off the road and turned over into an embankment. Blackford was ejected from the car and pronounced dead at the scene, leaving McMann as the lone survivor of the accident.
Within a span of five years, two of the people she had cared most for in this world were taken from her in a blink of an eye. It’s tough imagining any individual not succumbing to pain and self-pity under such tragic circumstances.
McMann’s life had been a fight before she ever stepped foot into the Octagon. She got knocked down once, and just when she thought she finally found her footing, she got knocked down again. It was an endless cycle of sadness that would cause the average person to break.
But McMann isn’t the average person.
It wasn’t long after Blackford’s death that she was back on the wrestling mat and doing what she loved to do. There was no wallowing in sorrow or self-pity for this Olympian, who completely revamped the way she looked at life. She told Fox Sports:
I think it helps me define the life I want to live and what I want, just being exposed to mortality. It also helps me prioritize, McMann told Fox Sports. Part of the lack of desire for money and fame is the desire to spend as much time with my family as possible, creating the memories that really matter to you. People on their death bed don't say I wish I had more money and fame.
In 2011, she made the decision to trade in her singlet for a pair of four-ounce gloves and enter the world of mixed martial arts. Her wrestling background has already helped her amass a 7-0 professional record and secure a title shot against UFC champ Ronda Rousey in the main event of UFC 170 on February 22.
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Despite everything McMann has been through in her life, she will be greeted with another opportunity to go for the gold—to reach up and grab that proverbial brass ring.
“Life goes on. It has to, right? Humans are extremely adaptable,” she said to Fox Sports.
Stories of heartache and pain often go unrecognized behind the brightest of smiles, and beneath her radiant smile, McMann proved that it is possible to find triumph in a world overcome by tragedy.
You just have to adapt.