By Karen Price | Jan. 16, 2020, 3:44 p.m. (ET)

Ceara Gray poses for a photo after winning "Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful" on July 29, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

At this time last year, Ceara Gray was in her final semester at Baylor University and looking ahead to getting a 9 to 5 job, going to graduate school and, ultimately, working either in international business or for the government.

Those things are still on the table, but now there’s another vision in the mix: representing the United States in weightlifting at the Olympics Games.

“I had plans and life just threw me for a loop,” she said. “Obviously, a good one.”

Gray, a 22-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama, was chosen one of six winners from 50 finalists in Season 3 of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful.” She will train with the national weightlifting program and is now going full-tilt in pursuit of her new Olympic dream. It may be a bit of a detour from where she thought she’d be to start 2020, but one that’s making her very happy. 

It all started when Baylor hosted a Team USA Pro Day last spring. The series is open to 18- to 24-year-olds and brings representatives from a number of sport national governing bodies to campuses across the U.S. for fitness testing in order to identify potential talent. Gray’s coaches on the acrobatics and tumbling team encouraged her to give it a try. One of the representatives on site was USA Weightlifting Director of Grassroots Programs & Scouting Suzy Sanchez, who then encouraged Gray to apply for Next Olympic Hopeful, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s talent identification and transfer program.

Weightlifting wasn’t foreign to Gray. As a “base” in acrobatics, she started weightlifting in order to build strength so that she could provide a solid foundation for her partners.

“I grew to love it,” she said. “I felt super empowered as a woman and felt strong. Just being able to do those movements impacted the way I lifted people, so physically and mentally that was a big thing for me. That was kind of my passion was the weightlifting piece of it.”

It wasn’t something she ever saw herself pursuing after her college career ended, however. Gray majored in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and planned to pursue her doctorate in Middle Eastern studies and counterintelligence.

After winning Next Olympic Hopeful, however, having the chance to train and chase an Olympic dream wasn’t something she could pass up. 

“I want to give this a shot,” she said. “I can always go back to school, so I took a chance on this.”

Gray is now training full-time at Power & Grace Performance with coach Spencer Arnold alongside 2016 Olympian Morghan King and Olympic hopefuls including Harrison Maurus and Jourdan Delacruz.

“They’re all these amazing weightlifters, and after the intimidation blew over it was more inspiring to just watch them going through this Olympic process,” Gray said. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, I want to be there.’ And they’ve all been super open and honest and just genuinely nice people, just humble and they’ve helped me a lot.” 

Learning the art of weightlifting has been a process, Gray said. Her initial focus was simply on technique and learning to snatch.

“Having a bar over my head in a squat position, I’m like, ‘Who does this?’” she joked. “But it’s been a super fun journey and I can’t wait to see what happens in the long run.”

Gray competed for the first time at a local meet in late October and did well enough to qualify for the American Open Finals, a national meet, in Salt Lake City in December.

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I didn’t place there, but for your second competition ever to be a national meet was cool,” she said. “It was a learning experience for me (as far as) what I need to do beforehand, and traveling is a little different, so figuring out what I need was super cool.”

Her next meet will be another national competition in early March.

When Gray thinks back on the Next Olympic Hopeful competition she remembers first and foremost the camaraderie amongst the athletes. Even though they were 50 in attendance at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, competing for six spots, she said, there was still so much genuine support and encouragement for one another throughout the process. 

She also remembers the hardest part of the competition, and it wasn’t necessarily a particular test.

“It was more seeing all these athletes and how good they are and it kind of makes you doubt yourself at moments,” she said. “When you see these track stars doing a 40-yard sprint and just going at it and you’re like, ‘I’m not that fast,’ that was the hardest thing for me was just not comparing myself. I’m not the best sprinter, or the best vertical jumper, but I knew there was a reason why they chose me to begin with so I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to give my best and that’s all I could ask for.”

That’s the same advice she’d offer anyone trying out for Season 4 of the show that has already changed her life so dramatically. Registration is open for Season 4 at TeamUSA.org/NextOlympicHopeful through Feb. 9.

“Just go for it,” she said. “Take risks. You never know what coaches see in you, and you never know how you add up to other athletes. Just go for it and enjoy every moment. Even if you don’t get accepted you went for it and that’s all you can do.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.