She’s taken on Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champions like Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes, she was the first American woman to win a silver medal in the Olympics for wrestling, and she is an inspiration to young girls and athletes who want to shatter gender barriers. We’re excited to introduce you to today’s FACE of Charlotte, Sara McMann.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I have a 7-year-old daughter, so I wake up with her and get her to school and then run errands. My first practice of the day is around 10 a.m., and some days it’s strictly technical like hitting or judizu — the mornings are usually my lighter practices. During the evening practices I’ll have a lot of live practice, like full sparring and mixed martial arts. There is never a dull day!
How about the day of a fight?
The day of the fight we’ve already made weight, so I’m typically rehydrating and eating, so I feel completely healthy and 100%. I’m mostly trying to distract myself and relax and keep my nerves calm. It’s very tough to compete at night — and have the whole day to twiddle your thumbs until something very, very big and important is coming. I mostly try to be around my coaches or friends and distract myself as much as possible. If my feelings get to be overwhelming, I’ll just ride it out just to release it, so it’s not on my mind when I get to the venue and have to start warming up for my fight. But most of the time, I’ve done it so many times that I move into autopilot.
How often do you practice?
Six days a week. Each practice is between an hour-and-a-half and two hours and requires so much recovery it’s difficult to get anything done afterward.
When did you start competing?
At 14, I started wrestling in North Carolina. I was the only girl in the state doing it at the time. There was some resistance, not because I was a girl — they just had never seen it before and it was foreign. I had a brother who wrestled in Pennsylvania, and I had seen girls wrestling there, so it was completely normal to me. I was raised by a strong Italian mother who taught me girls can do anything a boy can do — if not better.
What’s been the most exciting moment of your career thus far?
Probably my first UFC fight because there was so much pressure going into it. I hadn’t done anything like it before. [In her first fight Sara fought Sheila Gaff and won!]
Who’s been your toughest competitor and why?
Amanda Nunez was the hardest fight that I’ve had and that’s because I went into it with my normal mentality off — and this had really only happened to me in my wrestling career, but I thought it was a fluke thing, but then it happened in my fighting career. My mind was trying to tell my body “we need adrenalin to kick in,” but instead my body felt as if I had just taken a light jog. I felt two seconds behind everything. I mentally didn’t show up, and it was terrible. It’s really a terrible feeling to be locked in a cage with someone you’re fighting and feel like you’re behind.
How do you avoid that situation from happening again?
I worked with Leonard Wheeler. He’s a professional football player who taught me different techniques — about five different things that if I feel that again I can think about to get myself into a different type of state to get my adrenaline to release. Most of them have to deal with a very protective feature built into moms — so I think about my daughter and her safety and think about anything happening to her or her being hurt, it produces a really strong protective instinct inside of me. It’s helpful.
Who would you want a rematch against?
Actually all three girls that I’ve lost to — Amanda Nunes, Rhonda Rousey and Miesha Tate. I would love to fight every single one of them again. I am a very competitive person. Nunes is a champion right now, so I am working to get back there.
What’s the biggest goal you have your sights set on right now?
The UFC Championship. Every sport I do, I think okay, I guess I need to be the best in the world at it. I don’t know how to think about it any other way. I think it’s a wrestling mentality. Any goal I set, I look toward the highest achievement.
What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
What’s the most important message you’d like to send to younger girls who look up to you?
When the world asks you to be something different than who you are, I would want them to be strong enough to say, “No, this is who I am, this is what I love, and I am not going to conform to whatever you’re asking of me.” A million different people are going to pull you in a million different directions and everyone’s going to want something different, and I want little girls and little boys and my daughter to just stay true to who they are.
Women athletes can often be overly sexualized — how do you try to avoid this and fight stereotypes?
I just don’t do it. It’s very much in your control, how you answer questions and the pictures you take. When you’re at a photoshoot, you are very much in control … the photos that you release — you tell the photographer what you’re aiming for, what you want for the picture. Know in your head what you want and communicate that, and you just don’t budge from it. Usually everyone is very okay with it because they understand that it’s my life and these images are out there and it’s my career, so I have a certain degree of control about that. Nobody can do that to you without your permission.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I had a college coach — Rocky Bonomo at Lock Haven University — who said when it comes to competition (but can also be applied to life), “Don’t go by what you feel, go by what you know.” Feelings change. They go up and down, and you can react to a situation completely depending on your mood that day or based on the circumstances.That’s helped me with sports a lot.
What’s something that people would be surprised to know about you?
In college I was a theater major, and then I went and got my master’s degree in mental health counseling.
What do you hope being the first American female to win a silver medal in the Olympics for wrestling means for other women in the sport?
I hope that me chasing my goals helps women chase their goals — even if it’s not in wrestling. I really hope it helps them pursue the things they love to do even if they meet initial resistance like I did in high school. There was no women wrestling in the Olympics back then. I hope they feel something in them that inspires them and they can gravitate toward, because you never know what can happen in 10 years, but that you can live a great life pursuing what you love either way.
What are three things you can’t live without excluding faith, family and friends?
Thank you Sara for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us! Also, thank you to Piper Warlick of Piper Warlick Photography for the incredible photos.
To read about more inspiring women in Charlotte, check out our FACES archives.
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