By Alex Abrams | Dec. 12, 2018, 3:22 p.m. (ET)

Mattie Sasser competes at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

 

Growing up in a remote part of the Marshall Islands, Mattie Sasser was cut off from much of the world.

Already far from any neighbors on the Pacific island nation, Sasser lived in what was essentially the country’s outback. Her diet consisted largely of seafood caught near her home. She was so far off the grid, in fact, that she had to be told that the Olympics are considered “a big deal” globally.

“It’s a tiny island, so it was far away from the capital city (of Majuro),” Sasser said. “For us to get there, we had to take a boat.”

Life has changed considerably for the 21-year-old weightlifter as she looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games, this time as a member of Team USA after serving as the flag bearer for the Marshall Islands at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.

Sasser has moved from her tropical island to Grayslake, Illinois — outside of Chicago — to train on becoming even more explosive at weightlifting. It has been a big culture shock for her.

“Honestly it’s been really hard,” said Sasser, who owns dual citizenship with the Marshall Islands and the United States. “Everything is hard — the weather, the language.”

Sasser has learned English as a second language, but she’s still not accustomed to seeing snow on the ground. She’s also adjusting to things that are just a basic part of life for the other American weightlifters hoping to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“She lives in an apartment for the first time in her life on her own,” said Mike Gattone, who coaches Sasser as senior director of sports performance and coaching education for USA Weightlifting. “Everything that you pretty much did when you left for college or so, Mattie is doing now. 

“She just built a life here, got friends, got an apartment and it just worked out great for her to stay in Chicago.”

One thing that has remained constant for the 5-foot-4 Sasser is her natural strength. At 135 pounds, she has lifted more than twice her body weight in the clean & jerk. 

Sasser finished 11th of 16 in the 58 kg. weight class while competing for the Marshall Islands at the Rio Games.

In her Team USA debut in May, Sasser placed seventh in both the snatch (95 kg.) and clean & jerk (120 kg.) at the Pan American Weightlifting Championships in the Dominican Republic. 

Sasser then recorded a personal best of 97 kg. in the snatch at the world championships in Turkmenistan in early November.

“Physically she’s the one of the most explosive athletes I’ve ever seen, and weightlifting is about explosion,” Gattone said. “But the kid was a great sprinter. She ran the 100 fantastically. She just has a huge preponderance naturally, a fast-twitch fiber. 

“She’s explosive as all get out, scary explosive.”

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At one time, Sasser was reluctant to step inside a gym. It seems odd considering she now trains 5-6 days a week, sometimes twice a day.

Sasser competed in track and field as a teenager, running the 100- and 200-meter races. However, one of her friends was a Marshallese weightlifter who encouraged her to try weightlifting.

"Well, I told him, ‘I don’t know if that’s good.’ Back then I was really skinny,” Sasser said. “I was like really scared because I didn’t want to get hurt.”

Sasser eventually joined her friend in the gym, and on her first day she ended up lifting more weight than him. Still, she didn’t take weightlifting seriously at first.

In 2015, at age 18, Sasser finally decided to quit running track to focus solely on weightlifting. She had fallen in love with it. Yet even then she didn’t quite understand the significance of making the Olympics.

“My dad told me if I want to go to the Rio Games I would have to focus on training, and I was like ‘What’s the big deal?’” Sasser said. “And he was like, ‘It’s a big deal.’”

Sasser didn’t grasp how big of a deal it was until after she qualified for the Rio Games. She didn’t know she would be carrying the Marshallese flag during the Opening Ceremony until her father told her.

“Honestly, it felt great,” Sasser said. “I came from a tiny, tiny island and I was able to carry my country’s flag — the Marshall Islands — in front of a lot of people.”

Sasser said she hopes to someday stand on the podium after medaling at the 2019 Pan American Games, and of course her main goal is to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. 

She’s working on strengthening her legs — as well as getting through another Chicago winter.

“She is a killer. She is extremely competitive, extremely competitive, and maybe some of that is her small-country upbringing and things like that,” Gattone said. “But she is a fierce competitor, so that’s another thing that makes her really good.” 

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.