That November, with her father awaiting trial, Toccara found her release. An honorroll sophomore at East Tech High in Cleveland, she heard an announcement over the school's PA system that the new wrestling coach, Kip Flanik, was looking for students to join his team. Thirty boys and five girls showed up for the first practice, and Flanik was especially impressed with Toccara, who was not only naturally talented but also eager to learn. While other kids used the sessions for freelance scrapping, Toccara listened, adjusting her stance and grip as instructed.
The day after the team's first intrasquad competition, Toccara's neck hurt so badly that she had to tilt her head as she spoke to her concerned mother. "I thought wrestling was Toccara's way of dealing with the situation," Tara says. "I thought it would end as soon as it started."
Toccara's neck pain subsided in a week, but her urge to wrestle didn't. Not that her new hobby was easy. At practices she felt singled out by Flanik, who seemed to be driving her harder than other team members. "When he pushed me, I said, "This man is not going to make me quit.' Once I realized he was trying to make me better, I not only respected him, I liked him better."
Her progress was extraordinary. In early 1999 Toccara won a silver medal at the girls' nationals in Lake Orion, Mich., and Flanik told her mother that wrestling could one day earn Toccara a college scholarship and open doors to a larger world. A man of few means (to supplement his coaching income, he cleaned abandoned buildings for a foreclosure company), Flanik began digging into his pockets to pay for Toccara to travel to meets and training camps. He drove Toccara to tournaments in Amarillo, Texas; Napa, Calif.; and Guelph, Ont. When they had to fly, he found $400 flights for $100 through Priceline, and $150-a-night hotel rooms for $30.
Flanik had grown up in Cleveland, the fourth of six children. His father, Robert, was a 6'3", 280-pound music teacher who worked for a vending company on the side. Kip says he dreaded the days when his father would drag him along to service the machines, because Kip always seemed to get beaten for doing something wrong. One afternoon while the two were out servicing machines, a man robbed Robert at gunpoint and killed him with one shot.
"It's cold to admit this," Kip says, "but that was one of the best days of my life. No one has any concept of the incredible abuse I had to take. He would kick us kids, stomp us, hit us with anything he could find. When I was 10, he hit me so hard in a restaurant that I peed on myself, and he made me sit in it. When my father was killed, I began to have a life."
Kip started wrestling in eighth grade, the year Robert died, and the wrestling room became his oasis. Now he was hoping it would become Toccara's.
His financial burden eased in the summer of 2000, when Sunkist Kids, an Arizona-based wrestling club, agreed to fund Toccara's equipment and travel expenses. USA Wrestling also began providing a $400 monthly stipend. That year, as a senior at East Tech, Montgomery won her first national open title, in Las Vegas, at 149 pounds.
Toccara earned an athletic scholarship to Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky., and last fall became the first in her family to attend a university. Flanik took a job there as a graduate assistant, for $600 a month, and later as coach of the women's club team in order to work with her.
During his four years working with Toccara, the father figure has never met the father. Flanik wants to but worries he might upset the family dynamic. Not until June did the two men speak by phone. They complimented each other awkwardly on Toccara.