American weightlifter Melanie Roach, 33, is finally fulfilling an Olympic dream that began more than eight years ago. The petite mother of three is one of four female weightlifters who will represent the United States this August at the Beijing Summer Games. VOA's Teresa Sullivan has more.
It was just a squat. An ordinary, routine squat. A simple strength-building exercise. The cornerstone of a weightlifter's training regimen. Stand erect with a barbell resting behind your neck on top of your shoulders. Make sure your feet are slighting turned out, then bend through your knees until your hips are level with your knee joints, and return to a standing position. Nothing to it.
Melanie Roach had done thousands of squats as a world-class weightlifter. But on this day, on this squat, something went terribly wrong for the 25-year-old athlete as she trained for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Her form was off just a little. It was no big deal, until she felt two "pops" in her back.
The "pops" were the advent of a severe injury that would foil Roach's hopes for Sydney, and plague her for the next seven years.
"I was really a shoe-in to make the 2000 Olympic Team. But an injury about eight weeks before the Olympic trials ... I had herniated a disc in my back ... prevented me from making the Olympic team," she recalled.
Melanie did not know it then, but she had just taken the first step of a long, but ultimately gratifying journey to the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Prior to that fateful squat in 2000, Roach was happily riding the apex of a meteoric rise to the elite echelons of her 53-kilogram weight class.
She won her first national championship in 1997, after only three years of competing. From there, Roach became the first American woman to clean-and-jerk more than twice her own body weight in a competition, and was the top-ranked female weightlifter in the United States. By 2000, she was a four-time national champion, and determined to reach the Sydney Games despite her injury.
"I actually went to the Olympic trials in 2000, and I tried to compete, but I ended up sitting in the stands and watching as everybody fought for the Olympic spots," she added.
Roach started off as a gymnast. Slim and feminine, she stands a mere one meter, 55 centimeters tall, and maintains a competition weight of 53 kilograms.
Melanie says she began weightlifting after a gymnastics judge introduced her to coach John Thrush, who is still her trainer today.
"The moment I set foot in the gym and tried weightlifting, I knew it was for me. I absolutely fell in love with the sport from the very first day," she noted. "It was such an easy transition from gymnastics to weightlifting. I think I spent a lot of time on my hands so my upper body was really strong. And in gymnastics you have speed, flexibility and strength, and those are all things that we need to be great weightlifters."
After missing the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Melanie took five years off to focus on family. She gave birth to three children, opened a gymnastics school, and helped husband, Dan, with his political career as a Washington state legislator.
She also tried several times to return to competitive weightlifting, but severe pain from her worsening back injury always stopped her.
Roach says she gained new perspective for weightlifting from challenges faced by her young son, Drew, who has the developmental disability, autism.
And Melanie says husband, Dan, continues to be a big help, too.
"I have an extremely supportive husband, and without his blessing, it would have never happened," she said.
Melanie's sights were already set on the Beijing Olympics when she successfully underwent a new type of microsurgery in 2006. She was training five days later, pain-free for the first time since feeling those two "pops" in her back seven years earlier.
Fully recovered, Roach stormed back to the top of the U.S. women's rankings, and went on to win a bronze medal at the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil.
But if you think Melanie does any heavy lifting around the house, think again.
"If it is not attached to a bar, I do not lift it," she explained. "I am very, very careful. I am very protective of my low back, so I have to be very careful. One thing that could keep me from Beijing would be an injury."
Roach says she plans to retire from competitive weightlifting after Beijing to concentrate on being a mom, wife, and business owner.
For better or worse, this American athlete's Olympic odyssey will finally end this August in Beijing.
An ancient Chinese proverb states, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and so perhaps it could be said that Melanie Roach's journey to the Beijing Olympics began with a single squat.