Monday, August 4, 2008

Weightlifter pushed through herniated disk, failed comebacks

Four weeks after delivering her third child, Melanie Roach awoke from a nap and uttered a line familiar to her husband, Dan.

"Honey, I have an idea."

For five years, Roach had been through exhilarating starts and excruciating stops in her ambition to qualify for the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team. Each time she tried, the herniated disk that knocked her out of the 2000 Olympic trials flared.

Yet she wanted to try again.

"I was totally supportive," says her husband, a fourth-term member of the Washington state House of Representatives, "and thought, you know what, if by some miracle she'll be able to live through this pain and make the Olympics and even if she didn't, she would be able to get that closure. She's got this nightmare of the 2000 experience."

Now she'll have the 2008 experience.

At 33, more than a decade after taking up the sport of weightlifting, Roach is on the Olympic team. The former gymnast, first inspired by watching Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Games, will compete as a featherweight (117 pounds) Sunday.

Her size (she stands just over 5 feet tall), her age and her status as a mother of three all strip away stereotypes of Olympic weightlifters. But the biggest obstacle for Roach was the "constant, deep, heavy ache" she lived with for six years, through the births of her children and multiple comeback attempts.

In 1994, Roach began weightlifting on the advice of a gymnastics judge who was also a weightlifter. By 1998, Roach had set a world record, lifting 250 pounds in the clean and jerk. She was the first U.S. woman to lift double her body weight.

In May 2000, Roach was in peak condition, lifting personal bests and primed for the Olympic trials, which were scheduled eight weeks later. One day in training, her knee was a bit sore, so she decided to do partial lifts.

"I used poor technique on a weight that should have been easy," she says. "You hunch over just enough with that much weight on your back, and I heard and felt a 'pop, pop' and a twinge down my leg. I immediately started getting sharp pains into my leg."

An MRI scan showed a herniated disk. She pushed through the pain in training. She got cortisone shots. She was determined to compete at trials.

"I was really just praying for a miracle," she says. "I felt like I was going to make the team."

Her first lift at trials, the snatch, was subpar. She knew the miracle wasn't to be. She withdrew, then cried while watching in the stands with her family. It was, she says, "the most devastating time in my life up to that point."

Immediately after trials, she got pregnant with her first child, Ethan, now 7. She started a comeback after his birth, but had to stop because of her back pain. Tests showed fragments had broken off the disk.

Nevertheless, she repeated the comeback cycle after delivering her second child, Drew, now 5. She competed at nationals, trying to make the 2003 world championship team. The top seven women at nationals qualified. She finished eighth, still in pain.

She quit weightlifting. She had been teaching gymnastics near their home in Bonney Lake, Wash., so she and her husband decided to open a gymnastics facility. Roach Gymnastics now has 500 students.

Then came Roach's youngest child, Camille, in March 2005, and, within a month, the urge to try weightlifting returned again. She went back to the gym but within a month had another new reality to shoulder.

Drew was diagnosed with autism.

She admits the news sent her spiraling into depression, with worries over how much it would change Drew's life. But it also gave her perspective. "I realized that if you compared a child being diagnosed with autism to not making the Olympic team, all of a sudden that Olympic thing doesn't seem so bad."

Managing her back pain with help from a chiropractor and rest periods from training, she qualified for the 2006 world championships team. There, a U.S. team doctor told her about a procedure called microdiscectomy, revolutionary because it wouldn't require cutting much muscle to remove the bone fragments from her back, thereby reducing her recovery time.

She had the surgery in fall 2006.

Within five days, she was back in the gym for limited training, staying off pain medication so she could monitor her back. Within eight weeks, she was doing Olympic lifts.

In the spring of 2007, she won her seventh national title and clean-and-jerked double her body weight again for the first time since before the injury. At the 2008 trials, she was the first woman to secure her Olympic berth.

"Here we are," she says, "hopefully finishing what we started 14 years ago."

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