When Sara McMann was a seventh-grader in Takoma Park she was faced with a choice. Luckily for her, she picked wrestling.
"We were in gym class and the teacher told us we could do either aerobics or wrestling," McMann recalls. "I had no interest in aerobics, so I talked a friend of mine into going into the wrestling group. We struggled with it for about a month."
That decision was fueled in part by countless hours of wrestling that Sara was forced to endure with her older brother, Jason.
"When I was about 3 I remember Jason forced me into some fake wrestling matches with him," McMann said. "He roughed me up pretty good, but it sparked an interest in me."
That interest just might land McMann a spot in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. She's at the RCA Dome this weekend competing in the U.S. Olympic trials and is the top seed in the 138.75-pound weight class.
McMann, 23, is the top-ranked wrestler in her class but would have been the No. 2 seed this weekend behind Kristie Marano, who beat McMann in the U.S. nationals earlier this year. Marano, however, failed to make weight and had to move up a class.
McMann holds an 8-2 career record against Marano, but her recent loss in the nationals would have moved her to the No. 2 seed. The two are widely considered the best American female wrestlers and both would be strong hopefuls to win medals in Athens.
"This is an awesome weekend for us," McMann said. "This is something you dream about. Ten years ago we never thought we'd have a chance to be wrestling in the Olympics, but it's always something you dream about."
As the top seed in her weight class, McMann earned an automatic berth into the finals, which is a best-of-three format. She spent all day Friday watching preliminary rounds and will be in the stands Saturday watching her friends competing. She won't be scouting.
"Everyone here trains together and competes against each other all year," she said. "I'll just sit in the stands and enjoy the environment and the wrestling. I don't have to do any scouting because we all know each other pretty well."
McMann expects her biggest competition will come from Sally Roberts, who also happens to be McMann's training partner. The two train at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.
McMann was born in Washington and spent most of her youth moving through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Her father worked in construction so the family moved to wherever the work was.
After experiencing her first wrestling match in seventh-grade gym class, McMann was hooked. Her family moved to North Carolina, where she attended high school. She then competed on the men's team at Lock Haven University, where she earned a degree in theater.
Since joining the U.S. national team, McMann has been one of the sport's most successful wrestlers. She won a silver medal at the 2003 world meet, was a gold medalist at the 2003 Pan American Games and is a four-time U.S. nationals champion.
"I've basically put everything else in my life on hold for a shot to compete in the Olympics," McMann said. "This is what I love, though, and I can't imagine doing anything else."
While waiting for her shot in Sunday's finals, McMann has been biding her time here doing what she usually does: talking and living wrestling. She's usually up by 8 a.m. and goes through a brief training routine with her training partner, Levi Wiekel-Negen, before heading to the RCA Dome to watch the competition.
"Levi is a great because he's about my size and is very rough," McMann said. "We usually do about 45 minutes of technique work before doing some light conditioning. It's a good routine."
On Sunday, she plans on getting to the RCA Dome by 8 a.m. to have plenty of time to warm up and soak in the atmosphere.
"The girls in my weight class are so familiar with each other that we almost know what to expect," she said. "We are competitive, but we are also friends and we realize we are going into uncharted territory."
Much like the territory she ventured into in seventh-grade gym class.
"This is an unbelievable experience," she said. "I never thought back then that I'd get a shot at making an Olympics team. Now I just want to go out and make the best of the opportunity."