Nine years ago, Sara McMann wept during the presentation of her Olympic wrestling medal.
They were not tears of joy.
At the time, the Athens silver medal was more a symbol of failure than success.
“I really had my heart set on winning it and I was up 2-0 going into the second period (against Japan’s Kaori Icho),” said McMann, who makes her UFC debut Saturday at UFC 159 in Newark, N.J. “I had really worked extremely hard and done everything I could to win the gold.
“I dedicated my entire life to it, so that was devastating to me ... I was heartbroken, there’s just really no other way about it. I wanted more.”
The blow has softened with the realization that McMann had given her all.
“There’s nothing more you can do,” she said in an interview. “Once you put everything out there that you possibly could, you should be proud of what you did. And if that’s a bronze or you made an Olympic team or you were national champion or a state champion — whatever your goals were and, in what you did, you dedicated yourself fully to it, you should be happy with that.”
McMann, 32, begins another quest on the weekend at the Prudential Center against Sheila (The German Tank) Gaff on the undercard of a UFC pay-per-view show that sees Jon (Bones) Jones defend his light-heavyweight title against former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen.
The McMann-Gaff fight is the third female bantamweight bout in the UFC.
Champion (Rowdy) Ronda Rousey (7-0) defeated Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 in February while Cat Zingano (8-0) earned a title shot with her third-round stoppage of Miesha Tate earlier this month.
Victoria’s Sarah Kaufman (15-2) and Alexis Davis (13-5) of Port Colborne, Ont., wait in the wings for their UFC 135-pound debut.
Like McMann (6-0), Rousey also has an Olympic silver — in judo at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
McMann, however, has to deal with far more pain than sporting failures.
“A place like the cage does not intimidate her because she’s already been through hell,” said a 2012 CBS Sports “Courage in Sports” segment on McMann.
In January 1999, her older brother Jason disappeared. His body wasn’t found for three months and it took three years to find his killer.
And in 2004, right after the Olympics, fiancee Steven Blackford — a star collegiate wrestler in his own right — was killed when McMann’s car went off the road in Colorado.
After failing to make the U.S. Olympics team for the 2008 Games, McMann got pregnant with daughter Bella.
Two months after becoming a mother, McMann took up jiu-jitsu with an eye to set goals and compete in the sport. Friends started urging her to try MMA and, when she tried her hand at striking, she fell in love with the sport.
“I started picking things up pretty quickly and I started excelling because I was having fun learning a completely new combative sport,” she said.
McMann made her amateur MMA debut in June 2010, stopping Jasmine Reed in one minute 45 seconds. McMann didn’t know how she would feel in the moments leading to her debut, especially against an opponent who came from a boxing background.
“I was quite shocked at how relaxed I felt,” McMann recalled. “I thought it was going to be way different.
“Now it’s kind of settled out to where I get about the same amount of nerves as I would for the high-level wrestling competitions that I’ve competed in.”
Her first pro fight lasted just 1:41, ending with a submission win over Christina Marks in May 2011.
The five-foot-six McMann, who makes her home in Gaffney, S.C., has fought in a variety of promotions since and understands that MMA is an “entertainment sport.”
“It’s real competition and your wins and losses very much count. But they also want to bring out the personality. They want the drama, they want all of the dirt. This is like a sport and soap opera mixed together.”
McMann has trained full time, first in wrestling and now in MMA, since she was 19. She has studied along the way, getting a major in theatre and minor in psychology before finishing up her master’s degree in mental health counselling in 2010.
She says she’s good at time management and has “learned to let certain things go,” like rescheduling training sessions when needed to be with four-year-old Bella.
The flexibility of her boyfriend and training partners help ease that road.
Her daughter has essentially grown up with wrestlers in the gym.
“She climbs all over the guys like they’re little human Jungle Jims,” said McMann.
The 23-year-old Gaff (10-4-1) doesn’t take much time when she wins. She has one knockout victory in eight seconds, one in 10 seconds, and two in 30 seconds each.
But her most recent win — a 10-second knockout of Jennifer Maia in March 2012 — is somewhat controversial in that it appears that Maia gets hit after she tries to touch gloves at the opening bell.
The Brazilian never recovered from the onslaught.
McMann was diplomatic about the incident, saying it’s hard to tell from the video exactly what happened.
McMann’s preparations for Saturday’s fight included time at Montreal’s famed Tristar Gym.
“They are awesome,” she said. “I’ve gone up there three times and I’m planning my next trip after this.”