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Originally published Friday, April 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Weightlifter Melanie Roach on the brink of Beijing

To get some sense of the depth and difficulty of Melanie Roach's life, think of it in terms of the most arduous hiking trail imaginable...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Melanie Roach

Lives in: Bonney Lake

Weight: 117 pounds. Height: 5-1

Athletic accolades:

• 2007 Pan Am Games bronze medalist

• Seven-time U.S. champion

• 2006 Pan Am Championships bronze medalist

• Five-time U.S. world team member

• 2000 U.S. Olympic team alternate

Benchmarks:

• First U.S. woman to clean/jerk more than double her body weight

• Set world standard in the clean/jerk in the 53-kilogram (117-pound) weight class, lifting 113 kilograms (250 pounds)

• Holds the longest standing American records in the clean/jerk and snatch/clean and jerk total.

Video online: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCljpY95pwI

www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oiF_S4eK1I

SOURCE: melanieroach.com

BONNEY LAKE — To get some sense of the depth and difficulty of Melanie Roach's life, think of it in terms of the most arduous hiking trail imaginable.

Treacherous, rough, rocky terrain opens up to lush green meadows. The switchbacks on the trails are dramatic, the ascents are steep and rewarding and the descents are treacherous.

Melanie Roach is a world-class weightlifter and an Olympian-caliber mother of three: Ethan, 6, Drew, 5, and Camille, 3. She is the wife of a fourth-term incumbent member of the state House of Representatives, Dan Roach, and the owner/operator of a business in Sumner, Roach Gymnastics Inc.

Three years ago, her middle child, Drew, was diagnosed with autism. Less than two years ago, she underwent dangerous, career-threatening back surgery. And last year she won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games in Brazil.

I first met her 10 years ago. Then she was Melanie Kosoff, 23, and recently had set a world record for the clean-and-jerk in the 53-kilogram (117-pound) weight class. She was the first American woman to lift more than her body weight in a competition.

Her picture appeared in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd." She was on the fast track to Sydney and the 2000 Olympics. She was 5 feet tall, a compact, brown-eyed force of nature. Her goals were direct and within reach. And her life was unfettered and almost perfect.

She has lived a remarkable 10 years since I first interviewed her. Now, at 33, after enough setbacks to discourage Sisyphus, she is on the brink of Beijing.

She won her seventh national championship earlier this year and only needs to finish fourth in the Olympic trials in Atlanta on May 17.

The challenge of telling her story is deciding where to begin.

Let's start with 5-year old Drew.

There were signs of autism early. When he played with his toys, he never invited anyone to play with him. He threw tantrums that lasted inordinately long, never followed around his older brother, and if anyone tried to touch him or play with him, he would scoot away.

Drew didn't make eye contact with people. And, when his mother called his name, he wouldn't acknowledge her.

"He was in his own little world," she says, curled comfortably on the couch in her living room.

At Christmas 2004, her mother-in-law, Pam Roach, put an arm around her and said, "I think Drew is autistic." Five months later, their fears were confirmed.

And, after all the fasten-your-seat-belt highs and lows in her life, learning that her child was autistic dropped Melanie into severe depression.

"I pretty much hit rock bottom," she says.

Every night at Drew's bedside, Melanie, a Mormon, prayed that he would recover. She was convinced that if she prayed every day, he would "get better."

In the throes of that depression, she met with her bishop and told him, "This is not what I signed up for."

He smiled, telling her, "Oh, yes, you did. This is exactly what you signed up for."

"He basically told me, 'Buck up, girl,' " she says.

She calls that meeting her turning point.

"After that, I started appreciating who Drew was instead of worrying about who he wasn't," she says. "That was like a huge burden lifted."

Many children with autism have no fears and will wander out of the house if given the opportunity. Because of that, every door in the Roaches' house — the bedrooms, the bathrooms, every room — is key-locked.

Keys, vitamins, drugs, even spices, have to be hidden.

This is the backdrop for the latest, and last, comeback of her weightlifting career.

"This comeback has really been magical in many ways," she says. "I have such gratitude for the opportunity that I have to go back and finish what I started. I really believe that having Drew and the challenges of his diagnosis and him having autism and knowing that is going to be a part of our family forever, puts things in perspective.

"Having the experience of being his mom is what makes me a more complete athlete now. It balances me out. And when I get in the gym, that's my time. I look at training as a privilege. I'm excited because I don't have time to fret over this mom thing."

Travel back to 1998, just months after our first interview.

Full of great expectations, she bombed out at the world championships in Lahti, Finland, in 1998, failing to make one of the three clean-and-jerks at 107.5 kilograms (237 pounds).

"We were expecting to definitely medal and hopefully have a chance to set a world record," she says. "But I think maybe the inexperience of competing internationally or the immaturity in my athletic career, I think I buckled under pressure, to be honest."

A seven-time national champion, she had so much success so early in her career, she thinks she might have gotten too much, too soon.

"It happened quickly. The rise was fast and, the faster you rise, the harder you fall, right?" she says. "But I think a lot of the experiences, although they were very bitter then, have been really huge assets for me now."

At the time of the world championships she had just started dating Dan, who flew to Finland for what they hoped would be a glorious celebration. They planned a vacation in France after the meet.

To compound the pain of Lahti, Dan recently had narrowly lost his first election.

"We literally hit the bottom together," says Melanie, who campaigned with him. "If you really want to get to know someone, go through a complete loss with them. We worked so hard to prepare and to have it completely fall apart. I think it was a real bonding moment for us."

Melanie stayed on the national team, won the nationals in her weight class in 1999, married Dan in March of that year and began the final push for Sydney.

And then she felt the first twinge that was the harbinger of the years of back pain that followed.

She says she got lazy on a squat. Her technique was poor and she felt a pop, pop in her back, like a couple of giant knuckles cracking, and right away she knew, "That was the end of it."

She herniated a disk in her back. She continued to train through the pain, hoping for a miracle. She tried to compete in the snatch competition at the 2000 Olympic trials, but "the pain was too much."

After realizing she wasn't going to Sydney, she sat in the stands as other women competed for her Olympic spot.

"I just sat and cried, watched and cried," she says. "To go from 1998, on the top of my game and to not ever be able to get back to that point and put myself on that Olympic team, well, it's one thing to go out swinging. But to just completely not be able to play the game, that's tough."

The busyness of her life didn't give her time for self-pity. Dan was running for the state House again. And she got pregnant with Ethan. The back pain remained, a reminder of her Olympic disappointment.

"It was very difficult for me to walk away from weightlifting," she says. "I had such bitter and sad feelings associated with that sport, or with that experience, and it was hard to let go of them, especially when you know what it feels like to do things right."

After each child was born she tried to come back to her sport. Her mother even retired from her job in Utah and moved in with the family so Melanie could prepare for 2004.

But every time she felt her comeback was about 85 percent complete, the pain returned. She didn't earn a spot on the 2003 world team, effectively dashing her chances for Athens in 2004.

"I look at it like this: If I had continued lifting past 2000, I wouldn't have the three kids I have now," she says. "Or if I'd come back after the first child and trained for 2004 and things worked, I wouldn't have had the other two. So things work out for a reason."

After the disappointment of 2003, and after Drew was born, Melanie suggested to Dan that they expand their business, Roach Gymnastics. In addition to their students, they also have a competitive, 35-member gymnastics team.

In the middle of 2004, she also became pregnant for the third time, not exactly the best formula for a run at Beijing.

"On the other side of adversity good things happen and I still kept my drive and my desire to compete," she says. "After 2003, it was like I always knew I would go back, I just didn't know how."

Camille was born in 2005, and two weeks before Melanie was cleared to exercise again, and not knowing whether her body would allow her to lift, she called coach John Thrush and told him she wanted to train for Beijing.

Then, another switchback. Four weeks after she began training, in May 2005, Drew was diagnosed with autism.

This was her life: three children, one autistic; a temperamental back; a burgeoning business; and another exhausting Olympic quest.

Even now, Melanie sometimes looks at Dan and thinks she must look like a zombie. Before she leaves to train she'll often say to him, "Please tell me again why I'm doing this."

"You can't poop out on us now," he says. "We're all in this together."

"This is a huge group effort," Melanie says. "It's not something I do by myself. When I first started back, Dan told me, 'We're not going to do this halfway. It's either all or nothing.' "

But eight months after this latest comeback, the back pain returned. This time it was so intense, it was difficult for her to stand straight. She felt exhausted every day. An MRI exam revealed bone fragments had broken off her disk and were embedded in her nerves.

She thought about quitting. Enough was enough.

Another pep talk. "Why quit now?" Dan asked her.

Instead, she had rare, dramatic surgery to remove the fragments from around the nerves. The surgery was a remarkable, complete success. She has a two-inch vertical scar on her lower back, a souvenir of the surgery's success.

"For the first time in as long as I can remember, my back doesn't hurt," she says. "Now I finally get what my coach has been preaching to me for 14 years. He always tells me to enjoy the process. This has been an incredible couple of years with my comeback. It's really been such a reward.

"Yes, my goal is to make the Olympic team and hopefully have an opportunity to medal in Beijing. But it already has been a healing process for me and one that I'll be grateful for, forever."

The many switchbacks in her life have led her to this beautiful place. A place where all the spoils from her perseverance still are there to spend. A place where China, for her, is as real as the Great Wall.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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