This is the easiest part of the journey. No way competing in the Olympics could be as hard as getting here, as hard as losing every single wrestling match for four years in college because she had to wrestle men since there was no women's team. No way anything awaiting her here in Athens could test Patricia Miranda the way she was tested as a freshman in high school, the day her father left work three hours early and drove 16 miles to snatch her out of practice. There's nothing here that can get to her the way a boy did junior year in high school when he called her "a joke" and she ran into the bathroom, bawling and wondering, "Is it possible it's true, that I am a joke?"

If there were an Olympic gold medal awarded for determination, for a dogged yet strangely pure pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal, Miranda would be on my short list to win it. It was entirely fitting, on the very first day women wrestled in the Olympics, that Miranda would distinguish herself by winning all three of her matches for the U.S. team.

"I don't care if people initially tune in to see if we're anything more than a side joke, if we're going to be mud wrestling, or if they think it's sexy," Miranda said. "This gave us a platform from which to speak, to say, 'Hey look at us.' You see the sweat, you see the tears, the pain and the happiness." It's mostly happiness for Miranda, 25, and for 23-year-old Sara McMann, a native of Takoma Park, who both advanced to Monday's semifinals.

But of course, it's what you can't see that truly qualifies as Olympic, regardless of whether either woman wins a medal here.

Miranda grew up in northern California, raised primarily by her father, Jose, after her mother, Lia, died. And her father, to this day, cares primarily about one thing. "Education," he said Sunday, five minutes before his daughter's third match of the day. "It's the most important thing. You can be great at sports and lose all the money in the world."

When Jose, a doctor, pulled his daughter out of practice, he told her she had to have A's to participate in anything, the same way he once pulled her sister, Andrea, out of a school play. Miranda told him, "Fine, I'll give you a 4.0 and you let me do what I want to do."

So she wrestled boys in high school, was captain of the team as a junior when somebody called her a joke. "I really wanted to know whether I was a joke, whether I was delusional," she said one day recently. "And if it took me the 10 years to figure it out, then fine. But I wanted to know about myself."

Well, she'd find out at Stanford, which didn't have women's wrestling. Only a handful of schools did when she started college. It was late in high school before she wrestled a girl for the first time. "I lost every single match for four years in open tournaments," she said. "Reporters say now, 'You never lose. Do you know what it's like to lose?' And I say, 'Try four years of never winning.' "

So what was the point? Why does a pretty young girl, 5 feet and 105 pounds, pursuing degrees in economics and international policy need to thrash around on a mat with grown men? God knows it doesn't pay a dime.

It turns out, very simply, that looking for excruciatingly difficult stuff to do is Miranda's thing. She felt uncomfortable with children, so she became a counselor at Stanford's summer sports camp and wouldn't stop until she was running the whole program. When she was losing every single match in college, "I was learning about my character," she said. "I'd go home after practice and I'd write down goals for the next day in practice, like, 'Score one point in practice today.' Being proud of myself was more important than the outcome. In high school, I wrestled guys who hadn't hit puberty yet. But in college, they were men and it was different."

To make it worse, she never had her dad to talk to about how difficult it was, how badly she was suffering from a strain or contusion. While she believes her father was "not an obstacle, just misguided; I knew he'd come around," she said after her final match Sunday night, "There was a good six, seven years where wrestling wasn't part of our relationship."

And anyone having this conversation with Miranda comes back repeatedly to why continue with something that seemingly produced no tangible reward?

"Because I wanted to explore myself," she said. "Because it enabled me to stumble on things I wanted to fix. Some days I wasn't very proud. Did I run or did I fight? I had to ask the question and I had to accept the responsibility if I had run. I never said, 'I'm a girl,' or 'I'm short.' I thought, even though you're short you could have made a better stand. It was so hard, and there was nowhere to hide, nobody to hide behind. It's so combative and so primitive. I just think it's the basic, simplest sport."

Behind Miranda as she talked, though she couldn't see him, was her father, now proud as can be. "Basically in awe," Jose said. "No I never imagined this -- never. As it turned out, she's in the right time and the right place. Three years from now she'd be too old and four years ago" women didn't wrestle in the Olympic Games.

"But I didn't do very much. I wanted her to excel academically, and she did. I never talked to her about the technical aspects of it. She never discusses with me the moves or what she does, to thrive under that pressure. . . . She'd go weeks without scoring. How she found the strength . . . she was basically wrestling with herself."

Patricia told the story of her father coming to watch her wrestle in New York last year at the world championships where she says: "His full conversion took place. I got all the way to the finals, where I lost, 5-4 [to Irina Merlini of Ukraine, her opponent again on Monday], and when I saw him afterward he said, 'Oh my God, you can really compete.' And I said, 'What do you think I've been doing all these years?' "

So, the journey has brought her here, where on Monday she may turn out to win a gold medal in the first Olympic wrestling competition for women. And just as she ascends to the top, and she realizes this goal, she'll quit wrestling. No savoring the moment, no enjoying the view from the top, no hanging around to soak up praise. Next week, Patricia Miranda is going to law school. Not just to law school, but to Yale, the top-ranked law school in America. "And I've got two days to get there," she said. "Registration is Sept. 2. I'm interested in arbitration, and surprisingly I don't like winner-take-all. I like that people can come to a consensus."

It's the chase, silly. It's the journey that fascinates and invigorates Miranda and Yale is her new journey. "Once I know I can do something . . . " she said, not finishing the sentence but not needing to. "If I can live my whole life that way, I'll be the happiest person in the world."

"This gave us a platform from which to speak," American Patricia Miranda, top, says of women wrestling in the Olympic Games.