Uplifting tale

Roach authoring the mother of all comebacks

To aspiring Olympian Melanie Roach, hoisting barbells is nothing compared with the challenge of raising an autistic child. To aspiring Olympian Melanie Roach, hoisting barbells is nothing compared with the challenge of raising an autistic child. (John froschauer/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nancy Armour
Associated Press / May 11, 2008

"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 US 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'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 US 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-inch, 33-year-old mother with 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 disk 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.

"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."

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

Devastating diagnosis
Last weekend, Dan played with the kids at home while Melanie trained. There was a local weightlifting meet that doubled as a fund-raiser 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, 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."

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.

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

Stereotype shattered
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 girly 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," said John Thrush, Roach's one and only coach since she began lifting in April 1994. "But potential is like a bag of gold that's buried in the woods. You've got to find it. 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 disk.

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.

"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.

Saved by surgery
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 disk 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.

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 US 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 US 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.

"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."

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