Most Olympic-level or professional athletes spend a lifetime perfecting one craft.
That’s what Silver Spring native Sara McMann spent the better part of 15 years doing. And at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, she became the first American woman in history to earn a silver medal in Olympic wrestling. Other accomplishments in a storied freestyle wrestling career include winning gold medals at the 2003 and 2007 Pan-American games and top three finishes at the 2003, 2005 and 2007 world championships.
These days, however, the now South Carolina-based McMann has immersed herself in becoming proficient in a multitude of sports simultaneously. Such is the life of a mixed martial artist.
Mixed martial arts is a combat sport that uses a variety of fighting techniques, including grappling, striking and kicking. McMann is the world’s fourth-ranked Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter.
“It can be overwhelming. There are so many techniques, so many ways to use the rules for your body type. Multiply that by five [martial arts disciplines] and every place you get there are 12 possible ways you can go. It’s about finding the best pathways for you,” McMann said. “It’s hard to be proficient [in a number of disciplines]. It would be different if I grew up doing MMA, if I never did one individual sport. You can see it, if you grow up doing MMA, you’re used to being good at three different sports.”
But that challenge could also be McMann’s favorite part of this second competitive career, she said.
In 2008 McMann retired from freestyle wrestling. Somewhere between the toll the grueling sport had taken on her mind and body and the USA Wrestling “office politics,” McMann had lost the love she once had for the sport.
Within a year — she was pregnant with daughter Bella at the time — she realized she wasn’t done competing. Jiu-Jitsu seemed like the logical route — it is rooted in grappling and ground fighting. But once McMann was introduced to striking, she was hooked.
Within two months of the April 2009 birth of her daughter with partner Trent Goodale, the head wrestling coach at Limestone College in South Carolina, McMann was back to elite level training.
“A new start was a really exciting thing but there is also this humbling aspect. You work so hard to become such a high level athlete in a certain sport and then to start from scratch again, from the basics, it was hours and hours of endless drilling just to become proficient at the basic skills,” McMann said.
Two years after entering the world of mixed martial arts, McMann, competing in women’s bantamweight, is 7-0. She won her UFC debut in April by knocking out German Sheila Gaff in the first round of their bout.
On Aug. 28 at the second UFC on FOX Sports1 event in Indianapolis, McMann said she will face perhaps her toughest test in former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman.
McMann’s wrestling background was a good platform to build on, she said. Her athleticism and familiarity with combative competition has helped bridge the gap as she continues to become more familiar with the intricacies of mixed martial arts.
McMann had reached a point in her wrestling career where everything was instinctual. Things are becoming more natural in the cage but the fact that she still has a lot to learn, McMann said, is exciting.
“If I get to the point where I can’t keep learning and growing and it doesn’t offer as much, then I’ll get bored. It’ll be come less exciting and I won’t want to do it,” McMann said. “[The Olympics] seems like a different life. For so long I had just been completely engrossed in the wrestling world. I’m in a different world now.”