Mohini Bhardwaj performs on the balance beam at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 on Aug. 15, 2004 in Athens.
Mohini Bhardwaj de Freitas made a career out of breaking the mold.
Call it rebellion if you’d like. Considered an underdog to be selected for the 2004 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team largely due to her advanced age — she was 25, decidedly in “grandma” territory for female gymnasts at the time — she defied the odds and made the six-person squad that won a silver medal in Athens.
As an older gymnast, Bhardwaj de Freitas, who after an admittedly wild adolescence helped UCLA earn three national titles between 1997 and 2001, eschewed some of the traditional training methods while going for the Games. While younger gymnastics hopefuls ground their way through thousands of repetitions, Bhardwaj de Freitas focused on building and maintaining core strength.
One of the revelations during those years was weight training, including some weightlifting.
“Being in the gymnastics gym for four hours a day was too hard on my body, and most of the skills I had at that time I’d had for nine years,” said Bhardwaj de Freitas, who narrowly missed qualifying for the 1996 Olympic team when she was just 17.
“I didn’t need to spend as much time doing repetitions, so I did a lot of cross-training. I did yoga and weightlifting, and I feel like that really helped my performance because it made me tremendously stronger. It wasn’t the norm for gymnastics at the time, and the only reason I was introduced to it was because the weight training part was something most collegiate programs implement into their training.”
That rebel spirit, the firmly held belief that the traditional route to a goal doesn’t have to be the only way to accomplish it, has stuck with Bhardwaj de Freitas, and it will be with her as she competes in the Nike American Open Weightlifting Series 3, which begins Thursday in Las Vegas. Bhardwaj de Freitas, who turns 40 later this month, will be competing in the masters division in only the second weightlifting competition of her life. (Click here to watch Bhardwaj de Freitas lift on Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. PT on the STRIPES platform.)
This foray into weightlifting comes after a period of years in which Bhardwaj de Freitas distanced herself from competitive gymnastics. She had no desire to continue after Athens, where as a last-second replacement for an injured teammate on balance beam in the team final, she drew on her vast reserves of experience to deliver a hit routine that helped the U.S. clinch team silver.
“Past 25 I felt like I was done and I had accomplished my goal,” she said. “I’d had that comeback, and I was ready to be done.”
She began coaching initially as a way of transitioning out of the sport, and discovered she loved it. In 2012, she opened her own gym, OOA Gymnastics, in Bend, Oregon. Any athletic activity during those years was done in the background of the greater life events like being mom to son Tristen, now 9, and establishing OOA.
“I pretty much did not train for seven years,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily become a couch potato, but I didn’t really work out, and I didn’t want to, because I felt like I’d spent my entire life doing just that.”
Two years ago, curiosity and her then-boyfriend, 1996 Barbados Olympic gymnast Shane de Freitas, compelled her to give CrossFit a try. She liked it immediately, though she gravitated more toward the weightlifting than the gymnastics side of CrossFit.
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“I hadn’t found an activity that challenged me similar to gymnastics as CrossFit did,” she said. “I don’t have to work at the gymnastics part of CrossFit, because that’s stuff I already have ingrained from my entire life, so I spent more time lifting. I love squats” — she laughed — “no idea why, and so I just somehow got pulled into it.”
When de Freitas, now her husband, suggested earlier this year that she sign up for a competition, Bhardwaj de Freitas didn’t hesitate.
“The biggest thing for me is that there’s not really anything for my size and my weight,” says Bhardwaj de Freitas, who stands 4 feet, 10 inches tall. “I was like, oh, they actually do this by weight class. That would make me really, really happy.”
Bhardwaj de Freitas qualified for the American Open in August at the PFB Weightlifting Summer Open in Oregon, posting lifts of 52 kg. in snatch and 66 kg. in clean and jerk.
For the American Open, Bhardwaj de Freitas has set modest goals: she’d like to set personal bests in both events.
With age has come sagacity — she’s careful to heed the advice of her coach, two-time U.S. Olympic weightlifter Chad Vaughn, something that wasn’t always the case during her elite gymnast years.
“If we’re training at a certain percentage, I just stay there. I don’t try to push it to a higher percentage than what he’s asked,” she said. “I feel like I listen to my coach a lot more than I listened to my gymnastics coach. That’s because I’m very new to this, I don’t know, or I’m a completely different athlete.”
The 2019 National Masters Championships in Salt Lake City are in the back of her mind when she steps up to compete this weekend. Beyond that, she’s not sure where exactly this new sport will take her or what people will say about her competing in it. And true to form, she’s completely OK with that.
“I think you just never know what life can throw at you and what you can end up with,” she said. “I never thought in my entire life I would end up doing weightlifting, and here I am doing that. You find something that you’re good at, and you hone your skills and you practice hard and you work hard and you kind of put blinders on as to what everybody else says. You don’t have to follow the same path as everyone else and be like everybody else. Everybody has their own path. You have to be true to that.”
Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.