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Mother Load
Michael Farber
August 18, 2008
Balancing the demands of motherhood and Olympic competition can be heavy lifting, but Melanie Roach and a new generation of women are making it look easy
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August 18, 2008

Mother Load

Balancing the demands of motherhood and Olympic competition can be heavy lifting, but Melanie Roach and a new generation of women are making it look easy

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AS MELANIE ROACH squatted and gripped the bar for her first snatch lift in the 53-kilogram weightlifting division, a small voice from the reaches of section 109 broke the library silence at the Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics Gymnasium on Sunday. ¶ "Go, Mom!" ¶ Roach, seven-year-old Ethan Roach's mom, went. Looking like she was ready for a dinner date—Melanie wore full makeup and diamond earrings on the platform—she lifted the 79 kilograms over her head and later made two heavier lifts, including a personal-best 83 kilos, and then went 3 for 3 in the clean and jerk, setting an American record of a combined 193 kilos. She finished sixth in her first Olympics, at age 33. Not that the boy decked out in a powder-blue TEAM ROACH T-shirt would say it, but his mom, all 117 pounds of her, probably could take your mom.

Ethan waited for more than an hour while his mother finished in doping control—"She's not a pee-on-demand girl," said her husband, Dan—but when she finally emerged to greet the two most important men in her life, the boy charged into her open arms and returned her vise-grip hug.

Mommy, strongest.

IF BEIJING is the Mother of all Olympics, it is also staging the Olympics of many mothers—at least for the United States. The U.S. team counts 20 moms among its 286 women, the boo-boo-kissin', bedtime-story-readin' athletes who really put the family in the IOC's self-important phrase, Olympic family. They include 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres, who picked up a silver medal in Sunday's 4 × 100 freestyle relay; judoka Valerie Gotay, who competes in the women's 57-kilogram class; and soccer captain Christie Rampone, a two-time Olympic medal winner.

Until recently there was a conceit that sports and motherhood were almost mutually exclusive, but in fact Australia's Shirley Strickland was the 80-meter hurdles champion in 1956 and Wilma Rudolph of the U.S. won the 100 meters in 1960 after giving birth. And even they were mommies-come-lately. As she trained for the 1948 Olympics in London, where she would win four track and field golds, 30-year-old Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands would trundle her two children to the track on her bicycle and let them play in the dirt of the long jump pit.

The USOC has no policy to accommodate Olympic mothers, but many federations have their own initiatives. USA Basketball, for example, covers travel expenses for a child and a caregiver, which is why forward Tina Thompson's mother, Lady, was in Beijing looking after Tina's preternaturally happy three-year-old, Dyllan. In 2004 USA Softball established a Child Care Fund. The mothers—catcher Stacey Nuveman, pitcher Jennie Finch and alternate pitcher Lisa Fernandez—spent part of the U.S. pre-Olympic tour in a motor home dubbed the Baby Mobile, a rolling day-care center with cartoons in the back and naps in the front.

"We've all found a way to make the children part of what we're doing," says Roach, who met Torres, Gotay and Nuveman in the Olympic Village last week. "[When I came back] I struggled with the idea that I was encouraging moms to leave their children to pursue their dreams, but then I realized the opportunity I had to inspire other athletes not to put off having children.... I think we've shown women can come back stronger, physically and sometimes mentally."

SOMETIMES, of course, the heaviest challenges aren't weights affixed to a bar. While Dan and Melanie Roach kissed in sodden Beijing on Sunday, more than 5,000 miles across the Pacific the couple's other children, Drew, 5, and Camille, 3, were presumably asleep back home in Bonney Lake, Wash. Drew is autistic. After his condition was diagnosed in the spring of 2005, his mother would kneel by his bedside and pray. Roach, a Mormon, thought if she prayed hard enough, his autism would disappear. She went to her bishop for counsel. When she told him, "This is not what I signed up for," he told her no, this was precisely what she had signed up for. "He helped me have unconditional love for Drew, to focus on the things he could do," she says. "This was a huge turning point for me.... I know had Drew not been diagnosed, I wouldn't have made the Olympic team. He's the reason I train and compete so much better."

In addition to spiritual realignment Roach also needed, essentially, a new back. She had sustained a herniated disk two months before the 2000 Olympic trials and failed to make the team. After the birth of her children she began a comeback in 2005, but she found it almost impossible to continue. "The back pain [was] worse than childbirth," says Roach, who delivered her children at home, drug-free and with the aid of a midwife, "because with childbirth you know it will eventually be over." Roach could not get off the couch. She could not hold her children. "We talked about her future in the sport," says Dan, a four-term legislator in the Washington statehouse, "but neither of us could say the word quit." In the fall of 2006 a desperate Melanie visited Robert Bray, a Los Angeles surgeon, who performed a microdiscectomy, removing three bone fragments that had been pressing on the herniated disk. Within days Melanie was lifting again.

"I was a volleyball guy; Karch Kiraly was my hero," says Dan. "But now I'd say my sports hero is Melanie. You read about what top athletes go through, but I've seen her dedication, working through her injuries. You watch her dig in and, wow, it makes me want to be a better person."

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