Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Rooting for Melanie Roach, Olympic Weightlifter, Autism Advocate, Mom

If you see Melanie Roach in one of those made-for-TV profiles of Olympic athletes in the next couple of weeks, believe her when she says that it's a world-class victory for her to have made it to Beijing at all.

Roach, 33, is on the United States women's weightlifting team that is due to compete when the summer Olympic games start this week with the finals scheduled to be held on Friday, August 8. As reported in The New York Times and NPR, Roach has battled for the past three years—after having three kids, including one with autism spectrum disorder—to return from back surgery to train, compete and finally, make the Olympic team.

Roach told NPR that having a son with autism has taught her to focus on the moment, and the things that are possible, rather than the long term and what is not possible. From the story:

Roach's Olympic quest has been both complicated and enriched by her son Drew, who is autistic. Not long after Drew was diagnosed three years ago, Roach went into a near depression.

A devout Mormon, she prayed her son would get better. When he didn't, she went to her bishop in tears. He told her to stop focusing on what Drew couldn't do.

It was, she says, a turning point. She began to truly embrace who Drew was — living in the moment with him and not dwelling on the past or the future.

"I really feel like that concept of enjoying the now and not worrying about the future is what my coach has been trying to teach me for 14 years — and that is what has made me such a different athlete 10 years later, and that is what has made me strong enough mentally to make this Olympic team."

If you have about seven minutes, check out this video The New York Times did earlier this year profiling Roach, visiting with her and her family and watching her train. She is matter of fact about her 5-year-old son Drew having autism (and her husband Dan being a state representative in Washington, and owning a gymnastics business). She says Drew is challenging, and you can see some of that in the video.

Roach voices what many parents of kids with autism spectrum disorder feel:

"It's difficult to let go of the expectations you have for your child. You have to kind of come to the realization that the things you thought he might become, or the experiences you think are normal for your children, sometimes don't happen for a child with autism," she says, adding that for her, "It was about letting go, and finally embracing who he was and to not think too much about the future and just enjoy who he is now."

"People look at me funny when I say that weightlifting is the easiest part of my day, but it's true."

She also adds: "I would trade every minute in international competition for a cure for autism."

(Photo from