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Originally published Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Weightlifting | Pierce County's Melanie Roach living a dream

The gym has fallen silent. All of the other weightlifters stop their workouts. It feels like somebody hit a mute button. Everyone is watching Melanie...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Melanie Roach

Melanie Roach, the top-ranked U.S. female weightlifter, competed in gymnastics at Auburn High School and owns a gymnastics club in Sumner.

Age: 33 (Dec. 15, 1974).

Hometown: Bonney Lake.

Height: 5-2. Weight: 117.

Records: Former world record holder in the clean and jerk (250 pounds, in1998). First U.S. woman to clean and jerk twice her body weight (1998).

Source: USA Weightlifting

2008 Olympics Video Coverage at NBC Olympics.com!

SUMNER — The gym has fallen silent. All of the other weightlifters stop their workouts. It feels like somebody hit a mute button. Everyone is watching Melanie Roach.

Standing on her platform, she stares at the wall on the far side of the gym, as focused as a heart surgeon. Her coach, John Thrush, bent over, his hands on his knees, speaking just above a whisper, goes through his checklist one more time.

She walks to the barbell and bends to grip it. In a quick explosion of technique and power and energy, Roach jerks the bar over her head and the 17 people watching her cheer as if this were something more than a workout, as if this were Aug. 10 in Beijing.

On this warm July afternoon, Roach snatches 82 kilos (180 pounds) in training. She hadn't done that in training in her entire career.

"Her training is going phenomenally well," Thrush said.

After going through so much. After failing to qualify for the 2000 Olympics because of a herniated disk suffered eight weeks before the trials. After the births of her three children, including her autistic son, Drew, 5.

After back surgery two years ago to remove three bone fragments from her spine. After the eight national championships she somehow accomplished in between the joy of motherhood and the agony of back pain, Melanie Roach is going to the Olympics, representing the United States in the 53 kg (117 pounds) class.

And she is a genuine medal contender.

"I'm a little disdainful of people who talk about what they're going to do," said Thrush, who has been her coach since her first national championship in 1997. "But this training cycle she is in is the best she's ever had. Ever. And I think part of it is because the pressure's off. I think the Olympics, in a way, are going to be easier because Atlanta was such an unknown."

After her disappointment in 2000, the buildup for the trials in Atlanta eight years later was enormous.

"I was so emotional for the two weeks before the trials," Roach said. "It was crazy. I remember the last Saturday workout when I knew I had done all I could. I broke down in tears. I was crying uncontrollably at the end of my workout. I was just so happy that I'd done all I could.

"For me, it was like labor and delivery. It's a weird kind of comparison, but when you go into labor, you know you're going to have a baby. There's no stopping it now. And the night before the trials, I remember thinking, 'I'm nervous. I'm excited. It's here. This is it and I can't stop it now.' It was so exciting."

On the day of trials, 5-foot-2 Roach weighed in just slightly more than the allowable 117 pounds. She briefly panicked, but called Thrush, who calmly told her to chew gum (preferably cinnamon) and spit into a cup. She made the No. 1 position on the four-member team.

Since the trials, Roach, 33, has become one of the most compelling stories in the buildup to Beijing. She has been on NBC's "Today" and been interviewed by Time magazine.

"I want to take in as much of this experience as possible and share my story with as many people as possible," Roach said. "But at the end of the day, when the Olympics is over, I want to know that I did everything I could to be prepared for whatever happens there with no regrets. That's what this whole process has been about. No regrets."

Roach declined an opportunity to fly to New York to do an on-set demonstration for Fox and turned down another trip to Philadelphia. She postponed a trip to the mound at Safeco Field to throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game until after the Olympics.

"It's been a difficult thing, because on the one hand I don't want to deny her these opportunities as they come along," Thrush said. "I've never told her no on anything, but I've sort of inferred that no would be a good choice. And she's made the right choices, which I think is a sign of her maturity."

As a mother, as the wife of state Rep. Dan Roach involved in a November race, and as an Olympic athlete, Roach has to be a multitasker. With everything else happening in her life, she and her husband and her coach also had to move their operations.

When they first partnered, Roach lifted in Thrush's garage. They moved to a converted day-care center. But in the last month, with all of the Olympic preparation in front of them, they moved into a spacious gem of a building in an industrial park in Sumner.

Roach's gymnastics school, which her husband operates and has more than 500 students, is on one side of the building. Thrush's weightlifting gym is on the other.

Her life leading up to Beijing has been a wondrous whirlwind. Yet Roach has kept her perspective. She has been the model pupil.

"As a coach, you have this plan and you have this idea in your mind of what an athlete can do if they do everything right," Thrush said. "And so many times you get sabotaged along the way by so many things you can't control. Behavior, lifestyle changes, that kind of stuff. They just resist doing things you know they should do.

"But Melanie's not like that. If I tell her she needs to do something, she does it. End of story. Now, to see the culmination of everything done right, it's very gratifying for me. For me and this athlete, in concert, to do this very difficult thing and get all the way to the Olympics, that's pretty wonderful. And if she continues like this, I see her setting all new American records in the Olympics."

Roach and Thrush were supposed to make this trip eight years ago. That was before her back stabbed her and stole her Olympic experience.

Eight years later, she is healthy again. She has grabbed the ring and is living a dream.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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