07/26/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Wrestling boys was rough for Patricia Miranda, the only girl on her high school's team, but nowhere near as tough as her battles off the mat. Competitors taunted her. Opponents' parents berated her. Even her own father lined up against her: He once threatened to sue the Saratoga, Calif., school district for allowing her to wrestle. "That was the wrong thing to do," says Miranda, now 25. "Trying to make me quit basically assured that I wouldn't."
Or maybe it was the right thing to do, if you want to stoke the competitive fires of an Olympic athlete. For Miranda kept her nose to the mat, and next month in Athens, in the 105.5-lb. weight division, the fierce 5-ft. dynamo will represent the U.S. at the first Olympics to include women's wrestling. "I'd say pound for pound, she's our best women's wrestler," says John Fuller, spokesman for USA Wrestling, "She's so tough, so strong—and trains so hard."
On her way to Athens, the young wrestler has had to grapple with her share of difficult family issues. Her mom, Lia, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when Miranda was 10. That left Jose, her Brazilian immigrant father, grief-stricken and in charge of two boys and two girls. "Suddenly I had four children ages 5 to 11," he says. "I had my hands full trying to juggle things." At age 13, Miranda, who was not particularly athletic, discovered wrestling when she went to a tryout on a whim. "I think the thing that hooked me," she remembers, "was that I was not very good at all." And her physician father believed his kids should devote all their time to academics. Eventually, though, when he saw how unhappy Patricia was at the prospect of not wrestling, he agreed to a compromise: If Patricia—a "C and D" student, she says—got straight A's, she could join the team.
She has since become an academic all-star—as well as a two-time world championship silver medalist. From Saratoga High School she went to Stanford, where she earned a B.S. in economics, a master's in international policy—both with honors—and admission to Yale Law School, which she deferred until this fall. In high school she wrestled boys her own size and won often. At Stanford, where again she was the only woman on the team, "I just got beat up—it was four years of losing." With the lightest weight class for collegiate men 125 lbs., she had to wrestle opponents who consistently outweighed her.
Yet it wasn't all struggle and loss. She and Stanford teammate Levi Weikel-Magden started dating. "We connected and it was something so rare that I thought, 'I'm not going to let that pass me by,' " she says. Weikel-Magden, now 25 and a law student, is spending his summer in Colorado Springs so that he can help her train. "We wrestle and work," he says. "I know that doesn't sound like fun, but when we do it together, it isn't bad." Miranda works out five days a week, wrestling three hours a day in addition to regular weight training and running. To maintain her weight, no fast food—ever. The last time she ate at her beloved McDonald's was in high school.
As usual, Miranda faces an uphill battle in Athens. The competition in her weight class could include two reigning world champions: Ukrainian Irini Merlini and Japan's Chiharu Icho. But don't tell Miranda she can't win; in her mind she already has. "This is my one shot," she says. "You know, dude, I'm starting law school the week after I win."
Pam Lambert. Vickie Bane in Colorado Springs