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Originally published Monday, August 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Olympics

After lengthy wait, success for Roach

The Bonney Lake mother of three capped a 14-year journey with a sixth-place finish in her weight class.

New York Times

2008 Olympics Video Coverage at NBC Olympics.com!

BEIJING — The coach for weightlifter Melanie Roach noticed she was unusually quiet the past two weeks, even as her long Olympic quest was nearing its conclusion. She was staring into space, appearing to be deep in thought.

Roach, of Bonney Lake, said she spent that time thinking back on the past 14 years — on her husband's rise in Washington state politics, on their autistic son and two other children, on the family's gymnastics business, on her back troubles, on her comeback, and on how her smiling image had ended up on a McDonald's cup.

"No wonder she didn't say much," said her coach, John Thrush.

Thrush never doubted that Roach would end up here, at the Beijing Olympics, where she finished sixth in the 53-kilogram (117-pound) weight class and set an American record with a combined lift of 193 kilograms, or about 425 pounds.

Even when back pain forced Roach into bed for days at a time, even after she had helped build a family, even after she had nearly retired, her coach never doubted her. He could feel this day, this moment, deep inside.

So many had sacrificed for her to be here, and many of them sat in the stands of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics gymnasium, wearing light blue Team Roach T-shirts.

Roach's husband, Dan, clung to a pair of binoculars. Her oldest son, Ethan, wore his lucky beaded necklace. Several others sat behind — Roach's mother, mother-in-law, coach, chiropractor, lifting partner. Even a friend from Zimbabwe's swim team, who trained near Roach in the Seattle area, stopped by to say hello.

Roach spent the past two weeks away from her family, more time than she ever had before. She needed "kid time" on Saturday, so she summoned Dan and Ethan to the athletes' village, where they spent a few hours simply hanging out.

Dan and Ethan had visited a part of China near Chengdu, an area crushed by the recent earthquake. Their mission demonstrated the art of balance long perfected by the Roach family, even at these Olympics. They went with friends from Children's Hope International, saw entire villages with houses torn apart. The devastation hit Dan Roach in ways he never imagined.

"A life-changing trip," he said.

Followed by a life-changing event on Sunday.

Over the years, Roach has gone from a fast-rising weightlifting superstar, to the first American woman to lift double her body weight, to a lifter with severe back trouble, to a success story. Her chiropractor, Greg Summers, called her back problems the worst he had seen.

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Then came an experimental operation, followed by the comeback, followed by more attention than any family from a small town in Washington could reasonably expect. Roach garnered national attention — and that McDonald's cup — with her story.

Thousands of e-mail messages poured in from around the world. They came from people with back pain, from parents with autistic children, from the owners of small businesses who struggled to manage their time. Each offered inspiration.

By Sunday, all that was left to do was lift. Roach made all six of her attempts spread over two events: the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. She set a personal competition record with an 83-kilogram snatch (about 183 pounds). After that, her husband stood in the stands, pumped his fist and asked rhetorically, "Great place to do a personal record, huh?"

After each lift, Roach threw down the bar in elation and sauntered off the stage with a fist-pumping swagger.

"It was the culmination of 14 years," she said. "Definitely worth the wait."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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