Fourteen years ago Sara McMann was still just a teenager, barely out of high school, when her brother, Jason, was murdered. An argument with a group of football players at the University of Lock Haven in Pennsylvania resulted in a murder that would go unsolved for three years. During that time, McMann moved back to Pennsylvania, transferring to her brother's school in Lock Haven, to be close to her family and to immerse herself in the sport she and her brother had loved on the team he had competed on. It was a passion and a move that took her all the way to four national titles and an Olympic silver medal at the 2004 games in Athens.
After her Olympics performance, McMann and her then boyfriend, Steven Blackford, planned on getting married. They were heading off to Washington DC on a cross country road trip. There, he was enrolled in law school and she had plans for finishing her masters in counseling. Just outside of Brush, Colorado, in the open, empty plains in the eastern expanses of the state, McMann's car drifted off the road. The car rolled and both she and Blackford were ejected from the vehicle. Before help could arrived he was dead.
Within five years McMann had lost two of the most important people in her life, both in tragic circumstances, both changing her life completely. After Blackford's death, McMann had to rebuild, slowly. She moved to Iowa, where she began training with the Hawkeyes, re-immersing herself in an arena where she was in control, the wrestling mat. There she met Trent Goodale, her now, longtime boyfriend. Today, they have a daughter together and live in Gaffney, South Carolina, where he coaches wrestling at Limestone College. Of course, as MMA fans know, McMann has gone on to have a very successful, unbeaten MMA career and currently sits next in line for the UFC title. But the lessons she's learned through tradgedy have stayed with her. She spoke to Fox Sports about the deaths of Blackford and her brother, and how those events have changed the way she interacts with an organization like the UFC.
"I think it helps me define the life I want to live and what I want, just being exposed to mortality," McMann said. "It also helps me prioritize. 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."
"I think when bad things happen like that, [feeling sorry for yourself] is probably the first thing that goes to our head," McMann said about her past. "I had to kind of open my eyes and look around and say, '˜Holy s**t, tons of people experience this'. It actually is more the rule of thumb, super painful things and suffering. The white picket fence, 2.5 kids and mini van "that is far from the truth."
Goodale spoke as well, about his own interactions with the UFC and making McMann's desires to make her own schedule and her own decisions a priority.
The UFC expects even more from its champions " TV, appearances, charity work, etc. Goodale said McMann will be very selective in what she does, no matter the consequences, if she becomes champ. She'll only attend the events for organizations she believes in, not ones that are just going to make the UFC money, Goodale said.
"There's nothing she has to do if she doesn't want to," Goodale said. "She can say it's her responsibility. No it's not. Her responsibility if she wins the belt is to be the best women's mixed martial artist in the world. She doesn't have to go and do Maxim."
It's a sobering reminder that not every athlete competes for the same reasons and with the same investment. The drive for athletic success can be a motivator by itself, outside of a need for recognition, fame, and money. McMann's priorities aren't necessarily the same as those of her peers, and nor should they be. It puts her in an interesting position with an organization like the UFC, who may, at least for a brief window, find themselves needing her more than she needs them.
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