Melanie Roach climbed three steps, rubbed her hands in chalk and walked toward center-stage, her eyes never leaving the barbell, a fierce glare never leaving her face. Her fellow competitors, their names on the scoreboard behind her at the Beijing University Aeronautics and Astronautics Gymnasium, were not her enemies Sunday — that barbell was. She liked the other weightlifters just fine, but that bar, and all the infernal gravity tethering it to the earth, was about to get its butt kicked.
"I definitely treat that bar," she said, "like it's my competition."
And on a day Roach will never forget, even when she returns home to Bonney Lake, Wash., and her hectic life of tending to the never-ending needs of three young children and a politician husband, she was beaten by five of the other eight women in the 53-kilogram weight class.
But she was 6 for 6 against that bar. Poor thing never stood a chance.
Six times, Roach bent over to grip the bar Sunday, and six times it wound up over her head, the glare on her face — softened by an immaculate make-up job and framed by a pair of dazzling diamond earrings — turning first to a strained grimace as the bar went up, and then a beaming smile as she held it in place until the buzzer signaled a successful lift.
"Wooooooooo!" she yelled at the end of the last lift, before slamming the vanquished bar, containing more than twice her body weight, to the floor. ("It was relief, joy, excitement," she later explained of the war cry she let loose.)
The performance of her life didn't get Roach an Olympic medal, as she finished sixth out of nine competitors, but with a combined total of 193 kilograms in the snatch and the clean-and-jerk it gave her an American record in her weight division, validating the long, twisting journey she made to get here and perhaps raising a question about her competitive future.
"I was definitely retiring," Roach said. "But now I might have to negotiate something with my family."
Before she tackles the future, though, Roach plans to savor the present and contemplate the past, with its wicked setbacks and its blessed gifts. It has taken her eight years, and a handful of aborted comebacks, to return to the level of performance she first achieved in 2000, when the former gymnast appeared headed for the Sydney Olympics as the top-ranked female U.S. weightlifter, only to miss out when she herniated a disc in her back three weeks before the trials.
But had she not suffered that injury, she likely would not have the cherished life she does now — as wife to Dan Roach, a four-term Washington state representative, and as mother to Ethan, 7, Drew, 5, and Camille, 3. During an "emergency" visit Saturday with Dan and Ethan in the Athletes' Village — "I need a kid fix," Melanie Roach explained — they sat and looked back at their journey.
"We were remembering all the sacrifices we made," Roach said after Sunday's competition. "It was a very important visit. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to do what I did today without it."
As Melanie competed Sunday, Dan and Ethan sat high in the stands to her left with one of her coaches (Drew and Camille stayed in Bonney Lake with family members). At one point, Ethan pierced the silence — "Go Mom!" — just before she grabbed the bar, eliciting giggles from others in the crowd but nary a flinch from Mom, who was locked in on her enemy, the bar. Only afterward did she acknowledge, "I'm pretty sure I heard a 'Go Mom!'"
But now is where things get complicated. For the short term, at least, the Roaches know the plan: "It's full campaign mode," Dan Roach said, who faces a Republican primary for his seat in Washington's 31st district a week after they return from Beijing, then, hopefully, a general election in November.
"I can't think ahead too much," Melanie said of her own career choices. "I have to consider my husband and family. The number one thing is to help getting my husband elected."
Beyond November, however, lies a competition schedule, culminating with next year's world championships, that beckons her with its promise of more moments like the one she enjoyed Sunday — or even better ones. After all, on Sunday, at age 33, against a group of competitors whose ages ranged from 19 to 27, she set personal bests in the snatch and for her overall total. It was moments like this that she dreamed of when she woke up from a nap in the spring of 2005 and told her husband she wanted to make a run at Beijing.
"It's hard to stop when I'm still improving," she said in one breath Sunday. But in the next: "I've been a pretty selfish mom and a pretty unselfish athlete, so it's time to focus on being a mom now."
Her coaches, meantime, "are licking their chops," Dan Roach said, "because they know she hasn't peaked yet. She's only had one full year of training without her back being hurt. . . . She's still got more in her."
Everything back home, then, will be much as she left it before heading to China. She may be an Olympian now, but the kids will still need new school clothes, and Dan will still need her to be by his side at those meet-and-greets on the campaign trail.
But at some point not too far in the future, she knows something else will be looking for her, too — that cursed bar, recovered from Sunday's crushing defeat and demanding a rematch.