Over the course of a few minutes chatting with UFC debutant and former Olympic Silver medalist Sara McMann, she will let you know three things about her personality: she’s a sore loser, she has no patience, and she can be a bit obsessive. The funny thing is, those are all positive traits when it comes to her quest for excellence in the sporting world, and she’s not ashamed of any of them.
She’s not lying either. Just go to her website, saramcmann.com, and scroll down. There, you’ll see a picture of her standing on the podium at the 2004 Olympics, receiving her Silver medal in freestyle wrestling. That was a remarkable accomplishment and something to be proud of, but you couldn’t tell it from McMann’s face. There was no attempt to put on a plastic smile for the cameras; she was devastated that she lost and she didn’t care who knew it.
“I think that I’ve always been someone that takes losses very personally,” said McMann, who lost a razor-thin 3-2 match to Japan’s Kaori Icho. “I know at the end of the day it’s a sport and it’s not like I’m gonna go out and get hung if I lost, but I have a lot of expectations on myself and I know how much I sacrificed and put into things, especially that being such a close match. I set my sights on being the champion, and I’m the kind of person that once I really set my sights on a goal, anything less is difficult for me. I’m a really driven person and clearly a sore loser. Eventually you come to terms with things and I really competed the best that I absolutely could. I did everything that I could and did the right things, and I have that peace of mind, so I just have to accept the fact that even if it’s your best and your best performance, sometimes your best isn’t enough. Sometimes people are still better than you, so you have to get over it.”
It took a while though, long enough for McMann to get back on the mat, collect even more titles and accolades and make another run at the Olympics. She would fall short of making the 2008 team though, leaving her with another dose of disappointment. Deciding that she was going to retire from wrestling, McMann still had the urge to compete, with jiu-jitsu being a logical next step for her.
“At first, I just knew that I wanted to compete still,” she said. “I knew that I was done competing in wrestling and I wanted to retire from wrestling at the time, but I still wanted to be a competitor, so I was thinking that I would start learning jiu-jitsu. A lot of the parts of my athletic training made me very compatible for jiu-jitsu, but it was obviously different enough technique-wise that I would feel like I was doing a different sport. But it wouldn’t be like saying ‘oh, I want to join the ballet.’ (Laughs) It wouldn’t be drastically different from what I had been doing.”
What a friend later suggested would be though, as he told McMann that she would be a perfect fit for MMA. The Takoma Park, Maryland native then went to a striking practice.
“I said ‘this is awesome,’” laughed McMann, with printed words on a screen not even coming close to describing how she said ‘awesome.’ “I totally fell in love. I was terrible at it and I still have a long way to go from where I want to be in my mind, but it hooked me like wrestling did, and if things are really difficult for me, I get a little bit obsessive.”
Six pro fights later, she is 6-0, regarded as one of the best bantamweight fighters in the world, and two days away from her UFC debut on Saturday against Germany’s Sheila Gaff. You could chalk that success up to her wrestling background and athletic prowess, but more likely it comes from having the ability to chuck her ego to the side and go from being the best wrestler in the room to the greenest MMA fighter in the gym.
“Absolutely,” she agrees. “Part of it was frustration towards other people and frustration towards myself because I know I’m a good athlete, but there’s no way around it. Everybody has to put in their time for years to get the muscle memory. Things will not be automatic. Even though I knew what to do correctly and my body could execute it, learning when to do it, how to set people up, and all the advanced level stuff, it was just out of my grasp. And I’m not a very patient person. When it comes to athletics, I think that’s part of my drive. I want to be awesome and I want to be awesome yesterday.”
She’s pretty awesome now, and not just because of what she’s done in wrestling and MMA. A mother of a four-year-old daughter, McMann has also fought through tragedies that would have crippled most people, with her brother Jason being murdered in 1999, and her fiancee Steven killed in a 2004 car accident. It’s this resilient part of McMann’s personality that she doesn’t talk about as freely as the aforementioned traits, but it may be the one that has pushed her to the heights she has already reached. In other words, there are great athletes in practice, and those who actually do it when it counts. To do that takes more than technique and athleticism. It comes from somewhere deeper. Sara McMann has that special something that makes her a prime time performer.
“I think that what makes me the athlete that I am and being able to bridge the gap between doing it in practice and doing it in competition is something in my personality and in my character,” she said. “And I think that same part of me is what helped me through all the struggles in my life. The same part of me that will fight to do everything I can to win is also the same part of me when I get knocked down really hard by life that will make me fight to do everything I can to get back on my feet to be successful and live the life that I want to live.”
Sara McMann: The Personality of a Winner
"I’m not a very patient person. When it comes to athletics, I think that’s part of my drive. I want to be awesome and I want to be awesome yesterday." - Sara McMann