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Olympic hopeful in weightlifting proves to be super strong mom

The lady believed in strength. In some ways, was a slave to it.

From the time she was 19 and was talked into abandoning a fading gymnastics career for weightlifting, Melanie Roach found glory and purpose in her might.

In between back injuries, surgery and retirements, she won seven national championships and, 10 years ago, became the first U.S. woman to lift more than twice her body weight above her head.

• • •

The mother begged for strength. Some nights, despaired if she would ever find it.

By the time she was 30 and was told the second of her three children was autistic, Melanie Roach would find herself on her knees, praying by her son's bedside as he slept.

After months of anxiety and depression, she went to her bishop for solace. This, she said, is not what I signed up for when I became a mother. No, the bishop replied, this is exactly what you signed up for.

• • •

The Olympic weightlifting trials start Friday in Atlanta, and Melanie Roach is running about eight years behind schedule.

Back in 2000, she was close to a phenomenon in the weightlifting world. A Terminator in a cheerleader's body. An elbow injury in gymnastics had led her to weightlifting in 1994 and, four years later, she was setting new standards in the sport.

The Sydney Olympics would be like her debutante's ball for the clean-and-jerk crowd. Roach was young, attractive and, presumably, could whip your tail around a set of barbells.

She was a few months from the 2000 trials when she got lazy with her technique in a workout and felt a popping sound in her back. Roach had a herniated disk, and a world of pain.

She tried qualifying at the trials but had to withdraw. So as others lived her dream on the podium in front of her, Roach sat in the bleachers and cried.

"To be that close," she says today, "was devastating."

Around that time, Roach retired from competitive weightlifting. She had recently married a state legislator in Washington and decided it was time to raise a family.

Ethan came first, and his brother Drew was born 15 months later. Camille would complete the picture two years down the road.

Melanie tried reviving her weightlifting career from time to time, but the back pain would always return and send her to icy bathtubs and cold realizations. Instead, she devoted herself to husband Dan's political career and the gymnastics school she opened in Bonney Lake, Wash., south of Seattle.

If her Olympic dream had been shattered, at least the rest of her life was in order. That was what she assumed before her mother-in-law pulled her aside the day after a Christmas party in 2004.

Pam Roach, a longtime state senator herself, watched 2-year-old Drew the night before. He didn't interact with other children. He seemed distant and withdrawn. Pam went home and spent the night doing research on the Internet. And now she was telling Dan and Melanie that she was worried Drew might be autistic. A battery of tests later confirmed it.

"There was a long time after that where I was really sad, just very depressed," Melanie said. "You realize all of the expectations you have for your child may not happen. He might not graduate from high school, he might not ever date a girl, or go to school dances. He might not go to college. We're very active Mormons, and he'll probably never go on a mission. He may not get married or have children of his own.

"It's almost like you're mourning the loss of a child when they're diagnosed with autism."

For months, Melanie, 33, was consumed with the diagnosis. The more she learned of autism, the more she realized her family was never going to find that perfect picket-fence existence.

It wasn't until she visited with her bishop that Melanie learned to embrace her new role in life.

"That conversation sort of changed her perspective," Dan said. "Instead of being sad because of all the things Drew will never be, she started accepting who he is and what he does offer the family."

They learned doors and cabinets needed to be locked to keep Drew out of trouble. They learned a change in diet, and daily therapy, could make a huge difference in Drew's life.

They explained to Camille that Drew's brain was a little broken and he needed special attention, so their 3-year-old now greets her 5-year-old brother's bus every day and walks him home hand in hand.

They learned that, unlike a lot of autistic children, Drew enjoys hugs. He lives for piggyback rides and would be content to let Dan tickle him for hours on end. And they learned the tantrums are inevitable.

"He doesn't like playing with other kids. He's not even aware really of other kids," Melanie said. "But he will let you in his space now. He's really very loving. He'll give lots of hugs now, which is very special because he can't communicate verbally.

"He doesn't talk very much. He tells us in one-word utterances if he wants something food-related or a movie or to go outside. He's considered mildly autistic, but he still needs help dressing himself and I have to brush his teeth. We do a lot of hand-over-hand action, bringing his hands through the motions so eventually he'll learn how to do things for himself.

"He's a sweet little kid. Really just a sweetheart. But I know there will always be a part of him that we will never be able to get to."

Shortly after Drew's diagnosis, Melanie returned to weightlifting in earnest. Devoting so much time to her business, Dan's political career and the children, she said the time in the gym became her haven. If their schedule sounds hectic, Dan says you would be amazed at what can be accomplished if you rid yourself of nonessential activities such as television.

One year into her comeback, Melanie was again sidelined with the back injury. This time, she wasn't going to give up. A new, minimally invasive back surgery had been developed and she agreed to try it.

Five months later, she won her seventh national championship.

Roach, who weighs 115 pounds and has had a clean and jerk of 250, is among the favorites to earn a spot on the Olympic team in this week's trials, but no longer takes such things for granted.

"That's one thing Drew has taught us is perspective. That's what he's brought to our family," Dan said. "The kids are really learning what it means to rally around Drew and be a family … it's something that can tear a family apart or it can bring it closer together. That's what we've chosen to do."

The entire family will be in Atlanta this week for Melanie's shot at the Olympic trials. And if that means everyone has to keep an eye on Drew to make sure he doesn't rush the stage, then so be it.

For now, Melanie Roach and her family have learned to enjoy today and not worry so much about tomorrow. That's part of why she no longer frets about the missed Olympic opportunity in 2000.

After all, she says, if she had made that Olympic team she probably wouldn't have the same family she has today. The lesson was difficult in coming, but heartwarming in its result.

As she explains this, you realize, not for the first time, that a mother must be strong.

Sometimes, stronger than she knows.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

Olympic hopeful in weightlifting proves to be super strong mom 05/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 10:06am]
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