WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American Olympic weightlifter Melanie Roach recalls the desperation she felt after being told her son was autistic.
“There was a long time that I was really sad and really depressed after his diagnosis,” she said. “You really mourn the loss of a child when they’re diagnosed with autism.
“You realize that all the expectations that you had for your child may not necessarily happen.
“He might not graduate from high school. He might not ever have a date with a girl. He might not go to school dances, or go to college. It can be tough.”
Roach, 33, is accustomed to overcoming obstacles, whether it is the stress caused by missing the 2000 Sydney Games with a back injury or the anxiety caused by chasing an Olympic dream with three children and a thriving gymnastics business.
“I really live in the moment when it comes to weightlifting,” she told reporters at a gathering of Olympians in Chicago. “I don’t look in the future, I don’t worry about what the next competition is going to be.
“I just focus on the now. It hasn’t been easy though.”
The diminutive former gymnast heads to the Beijing Games next month as the number one-ranked U.S. weightlifter. She said having weightlifting as merely one facet of her life gave her an advantage over most of her competition.
“Being older makes me a better athlete,” she said. “I’m better at going from one task to the next.
“I spend my day preparing the kids for the school bus, making sure we have dinner, getting the kids off the bus and making sure their homework is done.
“Then when I get to go to the gym, I get to breathe. It’s like a moment to myself, something that most moms don’t get. It’s a great balance. I wish more women had the chance.”
Following her injury just weeks before the U.S. Olympic trials in 2000, Roach took five years off to start a family and launch her successful gymnastics school near Seattle.
The five-foot-one-inch (1.55-metre), seven-times national champion returned to the sport at the age of 30, when most Olympic athletes are looking at their careers in the rear-view mirror.
“I always knew I’d go back,” said Roach. “I tried after our second child was born but the back pain returned. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment because I decided to come back again.”
“I look at it like this. If I made the Olympic team in 2000, I wouldn’t have the three kids that I have now. Everything happens for a reason.”
The layoff does not appear to have hurt Roach, a former world-record holder who had successful surgery for a herniated disc in 2006.
She will compete in the 53 kg (117-pound) event in Beijing. At the U.S. trials, Roach lifted 81 kilos in the snatch, a personal best in competition, and 109 kilos in the clean and jerk. It was her best effort since 1998.
With her children and a husband who is a member of the Washington state legislature, Roach is always on the run.
“I’m with these younger athletes and they’re all exhausted from traveling, always saying how tired they are,” she said. “This is a vacation for me.
“I’m not chasing three little kids, making sure the house in clean or worrying about the business. The list is endless. I learn to enjoy every moment as a weightlifter.
“I know it’s going to be over soon. This is my last dance. I’m so lucky to have a second chance. This is an exciting time for me.”
When the Olympics are over, the public spotlight will go out for Roach. Her goals will shift as she will look for incremental improvements for six-year-old Drew, her autistic son.
“I used to worry about what Drew wasn’t going to do in life,” she said. “Now I just enjoy who he is. It’s helped me in weightlifting.
“I’ve learned through watching my son that you just enjoy what’s here today.”
Editing by Clare Fallon