US women wrestlers overcome hostility
America's first four female wrestlers at the Olympics are linked by a shared resiliency and a stubborn commitment to compete in a sport that hasn't exactly welcomed them.
They are painfully familiar with discrimination, hostility and, for two of them, brutal violence that has saddened but also hardened them.
Toccara Montgomery took up wrestling partly as an outlet to deal with the emotions that overwhelmed her when her father was imprisoned for a 1998 double murder.
Sara McMann began wrestling to emulate her older brother, whom she idolized, only to lose him five years ago in a beating death for which a suspect is awaiting trial.
Tela O'Donnell petitioned her local school officials just for the chance to practice against male wrestlers. Patricia Miranda was opposed by her father, who once threatened to take her school system to court for allowing her to wrestle boys.
No wonder this determined group of first-time Olympians disputes any notion that it is a pampered byproduct of a sports-friendly system that coddles its top stars.
"They've all come through a sport that hasn't given them much and they've made it happen," US national coach Terry Steiner said on Wednesday. "But I think that once people see them here ... they will say, `Hey, this is OK, let them go'."
Women have wrestled worldwide for decades, but they weren't welcomed into the Olympics until now. As a result, the US women are dealing with tepid support from the US men's program.
The combined 20 weight classes in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics have shrunk to 14 — seven in each discipline — partly to accommodate the women.
Not surprisingly, some in the predominantly male US wrestling community are resentful that a women's sport sponsored by only six US colleges is costing them possible medals.
"We still have a long way to go to gain respect, but this is how it starts," Miranda said. "This is our stage to say, `Hey, look at us.'
"When they see the sweat, the tears, the triumphs, they'll see that we're the same as any other sport."
Miranda is something of a pioneer, having overcome her father's opposition to her career to make the men's team at Stanford University in California.
A top student who earned two degrees, she begins Yale University Law School a week after the Olympics. "What I like about wrestling is that, if you lose, you can't blame anybody else. But if you win, you own that for the rest of your life," Miranda said. "It's really an addictive thing."
But while Miranda, McMann and Montgomery were second in the world last year, and O'Donnell knocked off world silver medalist Tina George to make the Olympic team, none of the four has an easy route to a medal once they start wrestling August 22.
Montgomery, whose father is in prison, might have to beat world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi — the daughter of a former Japanese pro wrestler known as "The Animal." Kyoko already has predicted, "I will definitely win the gold medal."
Montgomery isn't deterred, saying, "I feel confident, I feel strong, I feel good. My money's on me."
Still, not many would have wagered even a few years ago that women, as McMann said with some measure of disgust, would wrestle before paying spectators in anything but mud piles.
"Some people expect you to be bigger, to just have two teeth and to be an ogre," McMann said. "I'm not what they imagined me to be."