Sara McMann had a warning as she answered the phone.
About 20 minutes before, the Olympic silver-medal wrestler and undefeated MMA fighter had learned her expected opponent for the weekend's Battle Xtreme Championship event had dropped out because of medical-clearance issues. Well, that was the official line.
"Like you can't get an eye exam at any Wal-Mart on the planet," she said.
She was talking fast, but she was just taking in all of the information of the past half-hour, that maybe another fight opportunity would be lost because of troubles with an opponent. The longtime wrestler who can throw a stronger punch than some might expect was ready to dish some out.
"I'll tell you this," she said. "Anything I say right now will definitely be my true feelings."
And there was plenty to talk about, including McMann's wrestling background, her competition on the world's biggest levels, her entrance in MMA and her immediate success at 5-0. It was a day after we talked that she learned she would still be part of Saturday's BXC card – at MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. – but only with a submission-grappling match, not an MMA fight.
Setbacks? Please. That's the way things have gone for McMann, who grew up going to her older brother's wrestling tournaments before joining the sport herself. She has a master's degree in mental-health counseling, a daughter, an Olympic silver medal and a promising MMA start as a 31-year-old fighter from Gaffney, S.C.
The one thing she doesn't have is an MMA fight this weekend, which leaves her looking forward to an upcoming Invicta Fighting Championships show on July 28 as the main event against Shayna Baszler.
"I've been through this before," McMann said. "You kind of get used to how this happens, that you start to hear some medical things and that it might not happen. I just have to keep looking forward."
Wrestling against the boys
McMann was born in Takoma Park, Md., and grew up for much of her life in Maryland and Pennsylvania. For one period, her family lived in the town of Lock Haven, Pa., known as Mat-Town USA.
Her brother took up the sport for which the town was so popular, which meant McMann spent plenty of weekends at his tournaments. She tried cheerleading for one year, and she enjoyed it at the time. But she preferred competing against the boys.
"When I was a younger, I was more of a girly girl," she said. "Then I got into middle school, and the girls got mean."'
So she gravitated more toward wrestling. By then, she was going into her freshman year of high school in North Carolina, which had a much smaller female wrestling population than her previous homes.
"I thought they were crazy," she said, "and they thought I was crazy."
During her first preseason, the high school coach wanted to make sure he weeded out those who weren't as committed, so it was a difficult session of training. It was her first experience in overcoming the hardships of athletics training, which would be useful for her later.
A starter by her high school sophomore season, McMann finished with a winning record as a senior competing against boys. After wrestling at Minnesota-Morris and Lock Haven University, McMann was one of the first female wrestlers to be housed at the Olympic Training Center, which prepared her for her run to the 2004 silver medal.
It was also preparing her for another future career, in MMA.
"There are a lot of transfers," McMann said of wrestling and MMA. "It's just that in wrestling, the object is to score more points, and in MMA, the object is to do more damage."
By the time McMann barely failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, she felt she was finished with wrestling. She had regularly competed internationally and was ready to begin a family.
She knew jiu-jitsu was similar in some ways to wrestling, so she tried some classes. A friend mentioned she should go a step further and begin an MMA career. Many wrestlers don't take to the striking quickly, but that was McMann's favorite part.
In fact, her striking strength has been a pleasant surprise.
"I found out I hit a lot harder than I realized," she said. "When you're sparring, you kind of pull your punches, and I was training with guys. So when I land a hard punch in my fights, and we watch it later on tape, it looks really hard.
"(My coach) tells me if I can keep the fight on my feet, I could really be good at it. But when I get close, I just want to grab them."
She took her first professional fight in May 2011 and has begun her career with five straight wins, including three fights in three consecutive months to start. In January, she defeated Hitomi Akano (18-8 at the time) in a unanimous decision at ProElite 3, which she considered her best fight to date because of the opponent and how she handled the fight.
Since, at times helping boyfriend Trent Goodale coach the Limestone College wrestling team, she has prepared for future fights, even if they have been difficult to nail down.
That was evidenced by this week's actions, just adding difficulty to what has been a hurdle-filled career in wrestling and MMA.
"I'm 31 and will be 32 in September, so I'm trying to take advantage of the time I have," she said. "I tell myself I'll reevaluate everything at 35 because I don't want to start losing to people I shouldn't lose to because I'm hanging on. But for now, I'm just loving doing this."
(Photo courtesy CombatLifestyle.com, where you can find more Sara McMann photos.)
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel is the lead features writer for MMAjunkie.com. His weekly "Fight Path" column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.