Weightlifter shows strength on and off platform

Updated: May 8, 2008, 6:14 PM ET
Associated Press

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." -- Olympic creed, by Pierre de Coubertin.


BONNEY LAKE, Wash. -- The front of Melanie Roach's refrigerator looks like millions of others across America:

A drawing in crayon that her oldest son Ethan did, with "To: Mom" in bold letters, and another masterpiece in what looks like fingerpaint. Pictures of family and friends, pizza coupons, magnets with the Beijing Olympic mascots on them.

And, next to Ethan's drawing, three photos of Melanie from the 2007 U.S. weightlifting championships, where she won a national title just seven months after career-threatening back surgery.

"It's not a big deal, it's really not," she insists. "I still put my pants on one leg at a time. I'm still a mom. I'm still a business owner. I'm still a wife."

And one of the best female weightlifters in the world -- an eight-time U.S. champion who can finally claim a place at the Olympics at next week's trials in Atlanta.

One hundred years after Pierre de Coubertin adopted that Olympic creed, this 5-foot-1, 33-year-old mother with cover-girl looks and three children, one of whom is autistic, is the perfect embodiment of it.

For Roach's story illustrates the struggle of sport and life -- challenges and perseverance, disappointments and triumph, tears and celebration.

Had Roach made the Olympic team in 2000, had she not herniated a disc in her back eight weeks before the trials, who knows where her journey might have led? She might not have the family she does now, or the gymnastics gym she and her husband own.

But "what ifs" are a waste of time. Everything really does happen for a reason, Roach said, the bumps and the blessings.

"At the end of the day, it's so much more than competing in the Olympics," Roach said. "It's about the journey and relationships and being able to persevere through trials. Looking inside yourself and finding what motivates you."

For Roach, that's family first, Olympic dream second.

Or maybe they're so entwined it's impossible to separate the two.

It was just four weeks after Camille, her third child, was born in 2005 that Roach decided to make a comeback. But it wasn't as simple as going back to the gym. She and husband Dan had, by any measure, a full life. Dan is a state representative, making the 90-minute trip back and forth to Olympia, Wash., each day when the legislature was in session. Melanie ran their business, Roach Gymnastics, a gym with 500 students and 17 employees. They are deeply involved in their church, too, with Melanie teaching Sunday school and Dan serving as Sunday school president.

But something was missing, and they both knew it.

"Not making it in 2000 just killed her," Dan said. "It was important to her to have that closure."

Added Melanie, "It's like having a lick of a lollipop but not being able to bring it home."

So they have found a way to make it work. The entire family.

Last weekend, Dan played with the kids at home while Melanie trained. There was a local weightlifting meet that doubled as a fundraiser at the gym afterward, so she stuck around and was soon joined by the rest of the family. Melanie was getting a post-workout massage when Dan and the kids arrived, and Camille and Drew quickly climbed on top of her.

When it came time for Melanie to give a short speech about autism, 3-year-old Camille and 7-year-old Ethan ran to stand at her side. Five-year-old Drew, who is autistic, came out with Dan to complete the family portrait.

"With the support group she has, they're able to do it. But it's still a lot," said Bonnie Kosoff, Melanie's mother, who lives with the family Monday to Thursday to help out.

Melanie and Dan's planners are both so jam-packed you can barely see the white of the page. A recent morning at their house was a nonstop buzz of activity.

After Melanie got Drew ready for school, she handed him off to Dan. While Dan took Drew to the bus, Melanie went over Ethan's spelling homework with him. Dan went back on bus patrol with Ethan, taking Camille with him so Melanie could get ready for appointments with her chiropractor and nutritionist, and pack for a photo shoot later that afternoon.

The strangest thing? All of this has made Melanie a better athlete.

"You learn not to sweat the small stuff, and I think that's transferred to weightlifting," she said. "(In 2000) I was a little immature in terms of experience, in terms of distractions. I was so caught up in the end result."

All that changed in May 2005 when they got a devastating diagnosis -- Drew, then 2, was autistic.

Autism is a neurobiological disorder that impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. Though therapy can help those with autism, there is no cure. That was the realization that cut the Roaches the deepest. This sweet-faced little boy with the big brown eyes might never reach milestones that other children -- even some other special-needs children -- do. Drew might never graduate high school. He might never go on a mission. He might never marry.

At one point, Melanie was so despondent she went to their bishop for guidance.

"I was basically complaining. 'This isn't what I signed up for," Melanie said. "He basically looked at me and said, 'Yes, you did sign up for this. This is exactly what you signed up for.' ... That was a huge turning point for me. I started letting go of trying to make Drew better and started enjoying him for who he is.

"I still hope for a miracle," she added. "But I don't dwell on it."

Drew can now ask for certain foods or movies he likes, and will say "hello" or "goodbye" or "I love you" when prompted. He's in a full-time kindergarten where he gets individualized attention, and will play with his brother and sister for brief periods.

But he still needs to be monitored 24 hours a day. Every door and cabinet in the Roach house must be locked with a key so Drew can't get in -- or, more important, out -- if someone isn't watching. When they go somewhere, it's with the knowledge they might have to leave immediately if Drew has a tantrum.

It is a daily challenge, for sure, but never a burden.

Melanie and Dan met in 1998, in the most random of fashions. The son of a longtime state senator, Dan was running for state representative and called a family friend to talk about the campaign. Melanie happened to be housesitting, and answered the phone.

"She told me she was a weightlifter, but she had this real sweet voice," Dan said. "I was kind of intrigued, and we kept talking."

After about 10 minutes, they hung up. But the next day, as Dan was standing alongside a road holding up a campaign sign, he noticed a woman in a passing car slow down and stare at him.

"The construction workers in the truck behind her were like, 'That girl's checking you out," Dan said, smiling.

He wondered if it might be that same woman he'd talked to on the phone the day before. Sure enough, it was. She pulled off the road and introduced herself. They were married the following year, and have been supporting each other's dreams ever since.

"We start with taking care of our relationship," Dan said. "Putting limits on yourself, you don't have to. The sky is the limit. But before you go out and chase that dream, make sure you have a strong foundation."

When Melanie and Dan go to meet Ethan at the bus stop, they walk hand-in-hand. They don't leave the house or end a phone call without saying "I love you." They have a date night each week. For Mother's Day, Dan plans to let Melanie sleep in and prepare a special breakfast when she wakes up. And, of course, Ethan, Camille and Drew will be his helpers.

They engage Drew as they do Ethan and Camille, asking if he wants to go for a swing when the family is in the backyard after school or telling him to get up off the floor. When Dan starts to chase after Drew after spending the morning with the kids so Melanie could train, she stops him and says, "That's OK, honey, it's my turn."

That selflessness has rubbed off on the rest of their family. When an older child refers to Drew as "that kid," Ethan quickly pointed out that "His name is Drew."

"When you put a little boy with autism in this hand, an Olympic dream gone bad in the other, that Olympic dream thing doesn't seem so big," Melanie Roach said. "I would be happy to trade the Olympic dream to have my son back."

But she knows that will not happen.

Growing up, Roach dreamed of going to the Olympics. Only in her dream, she was wearing a leotard and doing handsprings and back tucks on the balance beam, not lifting weights that would make most grown men buckle.

It wasn't until she'd finished high school and was looking for a way to get in better shape while she juggled college and a budding coaching career that she even tried weightlifting.

She was instantly hooked.

"It gets in your blood, and it never leaves," she said. "It's a natural sport for me. It's like it was made for me to do it."

Say weightlifting, and most people think of muscle-bound gym rats who boast of bench pressing a couple hundred pounds. But Olympic-style weightlifting is far different -- the quickest way to irritate a lifter is to ask how much she can bench press -- and is as much about flexibility, speed and coordination as it is strength and power.

As for those physical stereotypes, one look at Roach shatters those. Caramel-colored highlights peek out from her dark hair, cut in a fashionable bob. A fresh coat of red nail polish shines through the white chalk dust on her hands as she trains, and the stones in her silver hoop earrings sparkle when they catch the light. A pink plastic Strawberry Shortcake lunch bag is tucked between her backpack and gear bag.

And just like in her gymnastics days, her makeup is perfectly done when she steps on the competition platform.

"I'm a girlie girl, I can't help it. That's who I am," she said.

As a former gymnast, Roach was a natural at weightlifting. Three months after she started lifting, she qualified for her first national event, where she took third in her weight class.

"I've seen a lot of people with that kind of potential. But potential is like a bag of gold that's buried in the woods. You've got to find it," said John Thrush, Roach's one and only coach since she began lifting in April 1994.

"Potential has to be backed up by a whole lot of work."

By 1998, Roach was the top weightlifter in the United States. She set a world record in the 53-kilogram class (117 pounds) with a 113-kilogram lift (250 pounds) in the clean and jerk, and was the first American woman to lift double her body weight.

She was all but guaranteed a spot at the Sydney Olympics. But eight weeks before the trials, she heard a "Pop! Pop!" as she did a squat and felt a twinge in her lower back. She had herniated a disc.

She went to the Olympic trials anyway, and tried to lift in the snatch portion. But the pain was too great, and she withdrew. She spent the rest of the competition in the stands, crying as she watched other women win her spot at the Sydney Games.

"It's a classic case of missing the golden ring. It's right there within your grasp and you can't reach that far," Thrush said. "Overnight, it was just gone and nothing could be done at that point. There was no time left to fix anything."

Even when she wasn't lifting, her back problems lingered. And eight months into her comeback, the pain returned with fearsome intensity. Tests showed fragments of that herniated disc had broken off, and that excruciating pain was the shards digging into her nerves.

Her old massage therapist, Greg Summers, was now a chiropractor, and it was only by working with him that she was able to keep training. Still, she'd go five or six weeks, then have to take two off to let the pain subside.

She managed to train enough to win another national title -- her sixth -- in 2006 and make the world team. Finally, at the world championships, she asked a USA Weightlifting doctor if there was anything that could be done for her back.

There was, in fact, a new procedure called microdiscectomy that could help. Instead of cutting through muscle to remove the bone fragments, doctors could now pinch them to the side and work around them, reducing the recovery time. Though there was no guarantee the surgery would help, the Roaches decided it was worth the risk.

She flew to Los Angeles on a Sunday at the end of October 2006, and had the surgery Monday. On Tuesday, she was on a plane back home. The pain that had practically immobilized her was gone. She was back in the gym five days later, and doing Olympic lifts eight weeks after that.

Seven months later, she lifted a total of 184 kilograms (406 pounds) at the U.S. championships, her best result in nine years. In July 2007, she won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games.

Though she didn't have her greatest meet at the U.S. championships on Feb. 29, her total of 183 kilograms was enough to win her weight class and qualify for one of the four Olympic berths. She still must compete at the Olympic trials next weekend but, barring another disaster, she will be on her way to Beijing in August.

After eight years, and a lifetime's worth of tests and triumphs, her journey finally will be complete.

"My story isn't really about me," she said. "It's about a group of people that came together to try and make this Olympic dream happen. Everyone struggles. Everyone has challenges. No one is perfect. It's about how you handle it."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index