Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bonney Lake weightlifter shoulders plenty of loads

By TED MILLER
P-I COLUMNIST

MELANIE ROACH IS 32. She owns a business. She has three young children, one of whom is autistic. She's hosting an exchange student from Chile. Her husband, Dan, is a state representative.

She has a bad back.

Just like many of us, Roach carries around a lot of weight on her shoulders as she goes about her life. Unlike many of us, however, she enjoys periodically adding, oh, 234 or so pounds to her daily load.

As in that's what she lifts above her head.

Roach, the pride of Bonney Lake, won her second-consecutive and seventh overall USA Weightlifting title last weekend. She snatched 172 pounds (that's taking the barbell from ground to overhead with straight arms in one motion). Then she tossed 233.69 pounds in the clean and jerk (barbell from ground to chest, then -- jump! -- overhead).

Did we mention that Roach is 5-feet tall and 117 pounds? And that she doesn't in the least bit resemble a burly "Helga," to borrow Roach's own term?

Every man reading this is presently trying to figure out if he could lift 234 pounds over his head. Dear sirs, you cannot. In the interests of lower backs -- and male egos -- across our city, please, don't try.

Most couldn't hoist it up above their knees.

Last summer, Washington's 260-pound defensive end Grayson Gunheim was lauded in this space for recording a 334-pound power clean. That lift, however, finished at his chest, not overhead.

So, yes, Roach, who looks more like a cheerleader than a gym toughie, is strong by any measure, regardless of gender. That's why she's expecting, eight years after a herniated disc killed her 2000 Olympic hopes, that she will qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008.

On her more immediate horizon, she travels to Rio de Janeiro for the Pan American Games in July and then to Thailand in September for the World Championships.

Roach started lifting on the oft-repeated suggestion of a friend, who knew her from gymnastics. She was immediately hooked on the intensity.

When she tells people what she does, most don't believe it. Then they test her biceps. Or they ask her how much she bench presses ("Maybe I should tell them I can squat 155 kilos (341 pounds)?" she said).

She produces pictures. Yep, there she is, looking a little less pixyish while standing under a bar that weighs as much as Lofa Tatupu.

"It's all about technique -- strength will only get you so far," she said. "And then you shut out every thought in your mind that says, 'My body shouldn't be doing this.' "

Her husband, Dan, has his own picture -- a poster of her lifting in 1999 from when she was nominated for P-I Sports Star of the Year -- hanging in his legislative office in Olympia. So it should come as no surprise that he fielded this question from an adolescent meathead during a Q&A session at the conclusion of a high school field trip: "Is it true that your wife can lift more than you?"

Dan, son of state senator Pam Roach (R-Auburn), first talked to Melanie nine years ago when he telephoned a person for whom she was house sitting. They chatted for a few minutes. He was in the midst of a campaign and she was preparing for the 1998 World Championships. Upon finding out that they attended the same high school (Auburn) and church, they talked vaguely about getting together.

"In my mind, I thought she might be this huge woman," Dan said. "But she sounded so sweet."

Shortly thereafter, she saw him amid campaign posters on the street. She did a quick U-turn.

Click. Six months later, they married.

"Then he lost his election and I bombed at the World Championships," she said.

Her career appeared over after a herniated disc kept her out of the Olympic Trials. She took five years off, gave birth to Ethan, 6, Drew, 4, and Camille, 2. She focused on her business, Roach Gymnastics in Sumner.

Then she woke up one morning two years ago and wanted to make a comeback. She immediately started winning again, but her back pain was excruciating. An MRI revealed she had free fragments embedded in her nerves.

She reluctantly decided to have surgery in October -- during election season, no less.

This time, her husband won and her surgery was a raging success. To say that she's thrilled with her microdiscectomy would be an understatement.

"Six years of a deep, heavy ache was immediately gone," she said.

Now it's Olympics or bust, which means long, often complicated days, with as much as 15 hours a week with her coach, John Thrush. Both Dan and Melanie have their own heavy lifting, splitting their schedules between work and family.

"Sometimes we say let's sell everything and move to a remote place," Dan said. "Then we have a week when everything is quiet and it gets ..."

"Boring," said Melanie, finishing the thought.

Boring isn't good. The Roaches don't do boring.

What comes after Melanie makes her Olympic dreams come true next summer?

"I think I'd like to have more kids," she said.

So the heavy lifting will continue.

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