Mattie Rogers: "I like the confidence that being strong brings"
The weight of expectation is nothing new for Mattie Rogers as she bids to make her Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Since she was 18, she’s been doing what she does best; stacking kilos onto a bar to lift above her head.
In 2018, the Florida native held every American weightlifting record in the under-69kg class before moving up to 71kg.
Now she is charting a path to a medal at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games in the 87kg division as well as completing her bachelors' degree in sport and exercise science.
After the pain and disappointment of just missing out on Rio 2016, Rogers is staking her claim to be among Team USA’s top picks for Tokyo.
In an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, the 24-year-old former gymnast reveals why she took up the sport and how she's helping inspire a new generation of female lifters in the United States.
"It's strange in a way that we don't have footsteps to follow in. We're kind of creating the path ourselves. It’s cool to be in the first group of people to break out for American weightlifting." - Mattie Rogers
Staying hopeful in Olympic chase
Rogers has been one of the poster-girls for American weightlifting in recent years.
In just six years in the sport, she has won a total of seven World Championships medals including snatch bronze, clean and jerk silver and overall silver last year in Pattaya, Thailand.
That made her the first American to win medals at three consecutive Worlds since Robin Byrd-Goad who earned medals at four consecutive events from 1991 through to 1994 and competed at women's weightlifting's Olympic debut in 2000.
Like many athletes during this age of COVID-19, Rogers spent time earlier this year training alone in her garage.
But she was never lonely nor did she lack motivation, streaming her workouts to over 600,000 followers on Instagram.
She told Olympic Channel, “I'm one of the luckier ones because I can do everything from home and I've been able to, like, train and work out from home. So things aren't terrible for me but they're not great for anyone right now.
"For my sport specifically, we wanted to make sure that we stayed ready because we didn't know what would happen when the lockdown ended. We just tried to stay ready the whole time so that whenever things got off to somewhat normal, I was ready to go and ready to go defend my spot.
“Doing it for the internet live where they [fans] could see me helped me because it was a hard adjustment the first few weeks. I live in Florida, training in my garage, and it's so hot. So it helped me get over that initial hump.”
Rogers is now bracing herself for her biggest challenge yet, to reach the Olympic podium at a weight far higher than her optimum.
She has got over the bitterness of being overlooked for Rio despite being named top overall lifter at the trials with the selectors awarding the three quota places for the Games to Jenny Arthur, Morghan King and eventual bronze medallist Sarah Robles.
Having made her name at 69kg, she moved up to 71kg but was then dealt a blow by the announcement of the weight classes for Tokyo 2020 with her preferred class left out.
She revealed on her Instagram that "64kg is NOT an option", adding, "Longevity wise and health wise, up is the only way to go. Gaining weight is very difficult for my body, so I’m embracing this challenge. A few more kilos (or more than a few) should bring some nice changes to my strength."
After winning three medals at the 2017 World Championships at 69kg, she claimed just one the following year at 71kg - a bronze in the clean and jerk.
2019 was also tough to begin with as she tried to put on weight, changed coaches and struggled with injury.
And despite throwing up between lifts, Rogers won silver at April's Pan American Championships behind fellow American Katherine Nye.
At the World Championships, she again finished second overall behind Nye with both women booking their spots at Tokyo.
Then came COVID and the postponement of the Games by a year which means they will both have to qualify again with Nye all but booked for the 76kg berth and Rogers moving up again to 87kg.
It also means some rejigging of Rogers' personal life who has had to delay her wedding to Sean McCormick which was originally scheduled for September after the Games.
She said, “I think it would be different if they said, 'OK, you guys have your Olympic spots, you just have to wait here.' But instead for us, it's, 'You kind of don't. You have to go requalify. Hopefully maybe you'll make it in a year.
“We were so close and then not happening. It's upsetting for me because last Olympics I was the alternate, so I was one step away. And then, like, last minute it got taken away. It feels so familiar.”- Mattie Rogers.
Barbells or bars?
Rogers' discipline and focus started young, practising gymnastics as a youngster before switching to cheerleading and track and field.
"I was a gymnast for 12 years first. My mom started me when I was still in diapers.”
Rogers added, "I'm way too tall to be a gymnast so eventually I got out of that and found track and field. I did the 400m, 4x100m, 4x400m and if they let me I’d do the 200m. But I wasn't the fastest. I did some cheerleading and then found weightlifting after that.
“I always joke that if I retire from weightlifting in time, I'll go back to try and compete in long jump because I loved it so much."
Having started out as a cross-fit enthusiast, she has become addicted to her sport with personal bests of 106kg in the snatch and 134kg in the clean and jerk, both set at last year's Worlds.
So why did she settle on weightlifting?
"I think it was very similar to like how gymnastics was very individual and like your success was directly dependent on your work and what you did on your own.
"I definitely was not good at first. I was kind of terrible, I was so not good. But I eventually found my way and then once you start getting some success, you're like, 'Oh, this is kind of cool, this is kind of fun! And I just stuck with it."
Rogers even has two cats named after her two favourite Olympic weightlifters, Lu Xiaojun and Pyrros Dimas, with the latter now heavily involved with her career as technical director of USA Weightlifting.
She also says that her sporting discipline has helped her mentally, not least in today's turbulent times.
"I mean, for starters, I like the confidence that being strong brings. It's taught me a lot about myself and my work ethic and my mental fortitude. It's taught me a lot about basically sucking at something or failing at something and working even harder to overcome that and to get past that.
"I think competing in weightlifting in a way prepared me for what's going on in the world right now, because none of it was a shock like, 'Oh no, what am I going to do?' It was like, okay, this is terrible. This sucks. Let's make a game plan. Let's figure it out and then step by step work to getting through it, instead of panic mode."
Gaining strength and weight
The American trains for between four and seven hours a day and, as she puts on weight, is now lifting bigger numbers.
It bodes well for the Olympic Games as not only will she be at her heaviest in Tokyo, but she also produces her best in competition.
She said, "I tend to be a competition lifter, which would mean you lift more in competition. But I think the majority of people will lift more in training.
"What should be going through your head is confidence. I like to think, 'You've done this a million times.' I know some people think, like, 'Light weight or easy.' I don't like that one because it's not light and it's not easy.
"I'll usually think about being in that moment rather than thinking about whatever else is happening around you because it can be kind of chaotic and stressful in a weightlifting meet. So just like how racehorses have blinders (blinkers), that's what should be happening when you walk up to a lift.”
“I've done both. I've been in the middle and had to cut down to make weight. The most recent years I've been going up the whole time - that's just as much work as you'll get to the end of the day and you've already eaten so much food and you have to eat more or you'll wake up lighter.
"I'm moving up three weight classes for the Olympics, technically the 87kg category but I just have to weigh over 81.01kg. It's about 10-12 kilos from where I would normally weigh so I'm eating anywhere from four to five thousand calories a day."
'Beginning of an era'
No American woman weightlifter has stood atop the podium since Tara Nott won gold at Sydney 2000.
While Nye would appear to be Team USA's best chance of glory in Tokyo, Rogers is also in with a shout of a medal.
She said, "I've always wanted to make an Olympic team, obviously. I thought I was going to do it last Olympics, it didn't happen. Hopefully things come together for this one. I would like to just go for as many as I can. Definitely 2024, 2028, if that's possible."
As well as her hunger to succeed on the biggest stage, Rogers is keen to build a legacy for the future of American weightlifting.
“Between this Olympics and next, we're going to see so many young kids coming up. I'm a coach myself and I've worked with some of the youth and they're amazing and they're 15, 16 years old.
"I think this is kind of like not just like a singular era, it’s the beginning of an era. And all of these new people coming up, they're going to make it so much harder for me next time. But it's good for America, that's for sure."