The thermometer in the big steel tub reads 54°—cold, but not nearly cold enough. It's early January, five months before the U.S. Olympic trials and seven months before Beijing. National team wrestler Sara McMann shivers in her bike shorts and sports bra, barefoot on the antiseptic, white-tile floor of the Limestone College training room in Gaffney, S.C. Her boyfriend, Trent Goodale, a Limestone assistant wrestling coach, pours in another bucket of ice. He leans against the wall to time this session of tough love as McMann lowers the bottom half of her thickly muscled body into the water. The cold takes her breath away, raises goose bumps, drains her already pale skin of color. Like all athletes who ice injuries, McMann knows the sequence of sensations to come: cold, burning, aching, numbness. Later, the numbness will recede, and, as her flesh thaws, the ache in her 27-year-old knees will become even more intense. But that, too, will subside. Then, as always, McMann will be left with only the chronic pain. The pain no ice bath can touch.
McMann's toughest opponent before—and after—Beijing may be herself.
McMann wrestles like life comes at you: relentlessly. She stands her ground, takes her lumps, but long ago she made the decision to fight back. And while her story is inspirational, it cannot be wrapped with a made-for-TV bow. No three-minute up-close-and-personal on NBC can provide answers to the questions life has posed, because there aren't any. McMann knows this intuitively, but that doesn't make it easier. As fans, we want sports to provide catharsis. We swallow the triumph-of-the-human- spirit marketing pitch that comes with every Olympic Games because it gives us fuzzy feelings inside—hope for our own lives. Sometimes, though, overcoming odds is just a cliché, and wrestling is just a sport. It doesn't matter how many medals McMann earns. There may be satis-faction in winning gold, but there is no redemption and there is no happy ending. At least not the kind you want for Sara McMann.
McMann, an Olympic silver medalist in 2004, braves the ice for 10 long minutes, huddled in on herself as if bracing for yet another of life's broadsides. And she'll get two in short order. Later in the month, at the World Cup in Taiyuan, China, she will tear her right MCL and pull out of the finals. Thirteen weeks later, at the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas, she will lose in the finals of the 63kg (138.75-pound) division when Randi Miller's front headlock ties up McMann's shooting hand (her right), preventing her from hitting the quick and crushing shots that have become her trademark. The 24-year-old Miller will earn a bye into the finals of the Olympic trials on June 13.
At those trials, McMann must win three prelims and beat a rested Miller in the final to make the team. It'll be a rough go, even for a six-time national champion. Then again, Sara McMann has become an expert in rough goes.
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