Sara McMann came through even as the rest of her supposedly strong team was stumbling, leaving her as the Americans' only chance for an Olympic women's wrestling gold medal.
McMann bounced back from a meaningless pool match loss to pin Greece's Stavroula Zygouri in 50 seconds of their 1381/2 pounds (63kg) semifinal on Monday. McMann meets Japanese world champion Kaori Icho for the gold later Monday.
McMann lost to Icho in 4-3 in an overtime match lasting 8 minutes, 20 seconds in last year's world championship finals. Icho is joined in the finals by her sister, Chiharu, who meets Ukraine's dominant Irina Merleni at 1051/2 pounds (48kg).
Merleni took out the United States' only other semifinalist, Patricia Miranda, 9-0, by taking an early 4-0 lead and never letting Miranda get into the match.
McMann, a 23-year-old who grew up in a wrestling family, made sure she never got in trouble. As she and Zygouri fought for control near the edge of the mat, McMann worked a double-leg takedown that put Zygouri on her back. The pin came almost before the pro-Greek crowd could establish a home-mat advantage for Zygouri.
"She's really strong, so I'm really happy to get out of there," McMann said. "We mimic (in practice) every kind of wrestler, and we have a game plan for each style and stance."
Miranda lost to Merleni 5-4 in last year's world finals, a tightly contested match Miranda has replayed in her mind often. She won't do the same thing with this match.
Miranda, who wrestled her way into Stanford University's men's lineup as a senior, was trying to put Merleni in a headlock when Merleni reversed the hold and took her to the back for a 4-0 lead in less than 30 seconds. It would get no closer.
Miranda, pushing hard to come back, was attempting to work a tilt early in the second period when the faster and technically smoother Merleni again reversed her and turned her for a three-point, making it 9-0. In her four Olympics matches so far, Merleni has won three decisions by a combined score of 30-0 and pinned a fourth opponent.
Merleni has been as hard for her opponents to figure out as it is to spell her name. FILA, the sport's world governing body, translates her name into Melnik. USA Wrestling officials were told she spells it Merlini; Olympic draw sheets list her as Merleni.
Regardless, she spelled trouble for Miranda, who now heads off to Yale Law School with no better than a bronze. Miranda was to wrestle Angelique Berthenet of France later Monday for the bronze; Berthenet lost 12-1 to Chiharu Icho.