AS MELANIE ROACHsquatted and gripped the bar for her first snatch lift in the 53-kilogramweightlifting division, a small voice from the reaches of section 109 broke thelibrary silence at the Beijing University of Aeronautics & AstronauticsGymnasium on Sunday. ¬∂ "Go, Mom!" ¬∂ Roach, seven-year-old Ethan Roach'smom, went. Looking like she was ready for a dinner date—Melanie wore fullmakeup and diamond earrings on the platform—she lifted the 79 kilograms overher 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 acombined 193 kilos. She finished sixth in her first Olympics, at age 33. Notthat the boy decked out in a powder-blue TEAM ROACH T-shirt would say it, buthis mom, all 117 pounds of her, probably could take your mom.
Ethan waited formore than an hour while his mother finished in doping control—"She's not apee-on-demand girl," said her husband, Dan—but when she finally emerged togreet the two most important men in her life, the boy charged into her openarms and returned her vise-grip hug.
IF BEIJING is theMother of all Olympics, it is also staging the Olympics of many mothers—atleast 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 familyin the IOC's self-important phrase, Olympic family. They include 41-year-oldswimmer Dara Torres, who picked up a silver medal in Sunday's 4 √ó 100 freestylerelay; judoka Valerie Gotay, who competes in the women's 57-kilogram class; andsoccer captain Christie Rampone, a two-time Olympic medal winner.
Until recentlythere was a conceit that sports and motherhood were almost mutually exclusive,but in fact Australia's Shirley Strickland was the 80-meter hurdles champion in1956 and Wilma Rudolph of the U.S. won the 100 meters in 1960 after givingbirth. And even they were mommies-come-lately. As she trained for the 1948Olympics in London, where she would win four track and field golds, 30-year-oldFanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands would trundle her two children to thetrack on her bicycle and let them play in the dirt of the long jump pit.
The USOC has nopolicy to accommodate Olympic mothers, but many federations have their owninitiatives. USA Basketball, for example, covers travel expenses for a childand a caregiver, which is why forward Tina Thompson's mother, Lady, was inBeijing looking after Tina's preternaturally happy three-year-old, Dyllan. In2004 USA Softball established a Child Care Fund. The mothers—catcher StaceyNuveman, pitcher Jennie Finch and alternate pitcher Lisa Fernandez—spent partof the U.S. pre-Olympic tour in a motor home dubbed the Baby Mobile, a rollingday-care center with cartoons in the back and naps in the front.
"We've allfound a way to make the children part of what we're doing," says Roach, whomet Torres, Gotay and Nuveman in the Olympic Village last week. "[When Icame back] I struggled with the idea that I was encouraging moms to leave theirchildren to pursue their dreams, but then I realized the opportunity I had toinspire other athletes not to put off having children.... I think we've shownwomen can come back stronger, physically and sometimes mentally."
SOMETIMES, ofcourse, the heaviest challenges aren't weights affixed to a bar. While Dan andMelanie Roach kissed in sodden Beijing on Sunday, more than 5,000 miles acrossthe Pacific the couple's other children, Drew, 5, and Camille, 3, werepresumably asleep back home in Bonney Lake, Wash. Drew is autistic. After hiscondition was diagnosed in the spring of 2005, his mother would kneel by hisbedside and pray. Roach, a Mormon, thought if she prayed hard enough, hisautism 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 preciselywhat 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 turningpoint for me.... I know had Drew not been diagnosed, I wouldn't have made theOlympic team. He's the reason I train and compete so much better."
In addition tospiritual realignment Roach also needed, essentially, a new back. She hadsustained a herniated disk two months before the 2000 Olympic trials and failedto 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] worsethan childbirth," says Roach, who delivered her children at home, drug-freeand with the aid of a midwife, "because with childbirth you know it willeventually be over." Roach could not get off the couch. She could not holdher children. "We talked about her future in the sport," says Dan, afour-term legislator in the Washington statehouse, "but neither of us couldsay the word quit." In the fall of 2006 a desperate Melanie visited RobertBray, a Los Angeles surgeon, who performed a microdiscectomy, removing threebone fragments that had been pressing on the herniated disk. Within daysMelanie was lifting again.
"I was avolleyball guy; Karch Kiraly was my hero," says Dan. "But now I'd saymy sports hero is Melanie. You read about what top athletes go through, butI've seen her dedication, working through her injuries. You watch her dig inand, wow, it makes me want to be a better person."
Photograph by Bob Martin
LIFT OFF With son Ethan (inset) cheering her on, Roach finished sixth in her first Olympics.
[See caption above]