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Weightlifting: Not a solo sport

June 18, 2008, 2:57 p.m. (ET)

At 2008 Weightlifting Olympic Trials, held May 16-17 in Atlanta, Georgia, super heavyweight Cheryl Haworth was aiming for her third Olympic team. But the 2000 bronze medalist wasn’t calculating what weights she would have to lift to meet her goal.

That was her coaches’ job.

“I left it up to them, I really did,” 25-year-old Haworth says. “[I told them that] I’m a seasoned athlete, whatever you guys think I need to lift is what I’m going to go out and I’m going to do.”

It was also her coach, Don McCauley’s, job to tell her to stop competing after she successfully lifted 139 kilos, or 306 pounds, on her first try while one other lifter, Emmy Vargas, still had two more attempts. But McCauley calculated that 139 kilos was enough to put Haworth on the Olympic team, and that was the goal at Olympic trials. To take Haworth’s spot on the team, McCauley figured Vargas would have to lift 148 kilos (308 pounds). This amount was 18 kilos (40 pounds) more than her first attempt—an almost impossible jump in weight.

“They made the decision,” Haworth says. “I was like, ‘What? Okaaay …’”

Haworth sat backstage with her weightlifting belt still on while Vargas made her attempts. “My coaches were celebrating. They knew I was finished. In my mind, I sort of did too. But I wasn’t going to count my chickens.”

To the uneducated eye, weightlifting looks like a solo sport. The weightlifter walks on stage when called, chalks up his or her hands, steps up to the bar, and lifts—or fails to lift—whatever weight is loaded onto the bar.

But the sport is a really team event. Not with true teammates but with coaches, trainers, and even family. At meets, the coaches need to be the brains of the operation, especially at competitions like Trials where overall rankings are calculated not by total amounts lifted but by the percentage of weight lifted compared to body weight.

Unlike at the Olympics, where lifters in the same weight class only have to lift more than others in their same weight class, at Trials all the weight classes — from 48-kilo flyweights to 75+-kilo super heavyweights in the women’s field — were competing for the same four Olympic berths. Scoring by percentage, a flyweight could out-rank a super heavyweight even though she might lift close to 200 pounds less.

At show time, weightlifters can’t be bothered with the mathematical nuances of their sport. They have to stop thinking and achieve a Zen-like focus to be successful.

As Haworth says, “If I had to worry about what everybody was doing, what numbers I had to lift, I would be so messed up. I’d still be back there with the calculator.”

Haworth relied on her coaches to figure out the minimum she would have to lift to make the Olympic team. “You’re getting on the platform and physically have to be out there and lift in front of everybody,” she says. “You have to relinquish some of that stress to somebody else and let somebody else worry about [what you’re going to lift].”

“I really felt confident with the group of people I had, and I let them tell me what to do,” she adds. “I just lifted the bar.”

Her coaches were right, and by “just lifting the bar,” Haworth joined Melanie Roach, Carissa Gump, and Natalie Woolfolk on the 2008 Olympic team.

Roach, 33, finished first overall among the women with an 87.963 percentage while eleven family members wearing blue “Team Roach” t-shirts — including her husband and three kids — watched her compete.

To cheers of “C’mon, Mom!,” Roach — who is 5’1” and weighs 117 pounds — lifted a personal best of 81 kilos (178 lbs.) in the snatch and 109 (240 lbs.) in the clean and jerk. She is the only woman in the U.S. who can lift twice her body weight over her head.

The road to the Olympics has been long for Roach. It’s lasted over a decade and has had many detours. She suffered a devastating back injury before the 2000 Olympic Trials, stopped lifting, married, and became a mom. Then in 2005, she learned that her son, Drew, is autistic.

She returned to weightlifting, but her back nagged her. In 2006, after finishing 12th at the World Championships, she finally underwent successful microsurgery. Since then, she has won a bronze medal at 2007 Pan Am Games, as well as two national titles in her weight class.

But perhaps even more important than successfully recovering from her injury and surgery, Roach has finally learned from her coach, John Thrush — and from Drew — to think like a weightlifter. And when she talked about what it took to qualify for this year’s Olympic team, she used the word we — not I — as if Thrush and her whole family were on stage lifting the bar with her.

“We just tried to focus on our own attempts and not worry about what the other girls were doing,” she says, the voice of Team Roach.

This is something Thrush has quietly drilled into Roach. “It’s not about your competitor,” he says when asked what a weightlifter should be thinking. “That’s my job as a coach to know what your competitor is doing. The weightlifter’s job is really to overcome the weight, to overcome their own mental limitations about what they think they can do in terms of what’s on the bar. ”

Thrush compares weightlifting to pole-vaulting. “Every time you go up there, it has to be exactly the same movement. You can’t affect what the other jumpers are doing. You can only affect what you’re doing.

“Weightlifting is the same way. You can’t influence what [your competitor is] doing except for the fact that if you lift more weight, then they have to lift more weight. But it’s not like the field of play in basketball where you can disturb their playing. It’s more about getting yourself to perform under pressure and believing you can do something.”

Roach says that this focus is particularly important after missing an attempt in either the snatch or clean and jerk: “What really has to happen — and this is something that has finally occurred to me over the last 10 years — is to let go of what just happened and to focus on what you’re doing and not get caught up in ‘oh my gosh, I have to make this.’ You’re doomed if you do that. You have to really think about technically what you have to do to make it.”

Thrush has also encouraged Roach to enjoy the process of lifting and competing and to stay “in the moment.” At Trials, she had a look of complete joy on her face and a bounce in her step as she walked off stage after every lift — even after her last clean and jerk which she missed.

“I really didn’t understand that [I needed to enjoy the process] until our second son was diagnosed with autism,” she says.

“I came to grips with his situation and really loving who he is and not worrying about the future so much.

“I really have done that with weightlifting. I just enjoy what I’m doing right now.”

When asked what her plans are for Beijing, she says all her focus has been on Trials. She pauses for a moment, then adds, “I want to do PRs (personal records) in Beijing. But I will let the cards fall where they do, and hopefully, with a little luck, we can possibly have a medal there.”

There’s that “we” again.

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.