Weightlifter Mattie Rogers Poised to Become USA's Badass Olympic Sweetheart

Bill Speros@@realOBFSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 27, 2016

Olympic weightlifter and USA record holder Mattie Rogers is poised to power her way into the Olympics.
Olympic weightlifter and USA record holder Mattie Rogers is poised to power her way into the Olympics.© Christopher Nolan - www.MetConPhotos.com/Rehband (Used with Permission)

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. — Olympic weightlifter Mattie Rogers holds eight American records, including the all-time female high for both the snatch and the clean and jerk in her weight class.

At age 20, she stands one successful competition away from making Team USA for the 2016 Summer Games.

And her road map to Rio was divined in an inspirational letter from her father, who died when she was six years old.

Yet you probably best know her for that hyper-viral "epic fail" weightlifting video seen by millions on social media last month.

That 15-second clip of Rogers dropping her bar and helplessly chasing it before it destroyed a gym window trended across the Internet and received strong play on Bleacher Report, ESPN, Fox Sports, Headline News and elsewhere.

She used the video's postmortem to welcome about 30,000 new Instagram followers—there are over 250,000 of them all told—and to deliver a quasi-manifesto about her sport. The post received more than 16,200 likes. 

"We in fact know what we are doing and are trained to perform the lifts the way we do," she wrote in part. "Be nice in your comments on that stupid video, women are strong, contrary to what some of you believe."

The teasing and testing by social media cynics, critics and haters came long before that.

"A majority of the negativity that came from that video was from people who have absolutely no knowledge of the sport; therefore, their opinion matters even less to me," she said. "Social-media followers always seem to try to counsel me about how to feel about 'haters.' But I don't think they understand that I literally do not pay any attention to them nor do I care what they have to say."

As she prepares to participate in the United States Olympic Weightlifting trials in Salt Lake City starting May 5, Rogers describes herself as "relentless." She turns 21 on Aug. 23, two days after the Rio closing ceremonies. That may or may not be relevant depending on how she does in Salt Lake City.

"I'm also a complete perfectionist, which is what makes me the athlete I am and what kills me at the end of every week," she told B/R.

In between now and May 5, she will continue a methodical, anything-but-mundane, 20- to 22-hour, six-day-per-week lifting and conditioning regimen. Three spots are open on the USA women's Olympic weightlifting team after Jenny Arthur, one of Rogers' role models, claimed one of the prized slots at 75 kilograms.

Once Rogers kicks your ass (metaphorically of course) in the gym, she diligently charts her progress in a handwritten notebook. Chances are she'll quickly be back on the bar, after spending some quality time with her iPhone while sitting on a wooden chair in the far southeast corner of Altamonte (Florida) CrossFit, her home gym.

This is her safe space, away from any and all distractions.

Among her distractions of late are "totaling" her car last week, dealing with someone leaving mystery notes at her house and taking time to participate in this story. This week, those distractions reach critical mass with a PR/media trip to New York, her first.

She is scheduled to appear on NBC's Today Show on Wednesday as the network marks the 100-day countdown to the opening ceremonies. USA Weightlifting chose her for that honor. Her Big Apple itinerary also includes a photo shoot with Men's Health magazine and a weightlifting demonstration in Times Square.

Rogers' climb to the highest level of the sport evolved rapidly, as she began competitive weightlifting less than three years ago. She grew up as a gymnast and then became a competitive cheerleader at age 13. After a brief fling with CrossFit, she made a full-time commitment to competitive Olympic weightlifting as a member of Team Oly Concepts.

"She didn't start from zero athletically," her coach, Daniel Camargo, a former Seminole County Deputy who owns Altamonte CrossFit, told B/R. "She has made the same amount of incremental progress as someone who starts from ground zero in the sport. She just started from a higher place. Still, it's incredible what she's been able to accomplish."

Her ascent to the stratosphere of her sport is well-documented in the weightlifting community, in various YouTube videos produced by her sponsors and in thousands of posts on Instagram and Twitter.

But if you've missed any coverage of Rogers' rise, don't worry. You will likely hear her story often between now and Aug. 10, when the women in her weight class (69 kilograms) lift for gold in Brazil.

She's poised for it all but nonplussed. She defiantly reminds you that she must qualify for the Rio Games before anything else. Rogers exudes confidence, with just a slight trace of trepidation that she'll claim one of the three remaining golden tickets to Rio.

"I don't get too nervous these days, until the day of. I'm excited to see how this training cycle pays off when we arrive there. Ready to give it my all," she said.

Whatever "girl power" crusade one might want to extract from Rogers' rise in what was once a traditionally male sport is there by default and not design. This journey is foremost about "Mattie power." Everyone and everything else just hopped on for the ride.

"I would like to think I have also helped change the perception that just because you are strong, doesn't mean you are manly or bulky," she said. "It was never important to me in the beginning, but now I am starting to reach more and more women who have found their newfound confidence in being physically strong, whether in weightlifting or just being active in general. I think it is absolutely fantastic."

Hers is an "up close and personal" story ready-made for the Olympic segment producers at NBC. No artificial sweetener or false melodrama is needed.

Rogers lost her father, Drew, to colon cancer on Oct. 28, 2001, when he was 38. At that time, she shared the dreams of thousands of other young girls in making the Olympics as a gymnast.

When Rogers turned 18, she was given a letter from her father that he had written before his death. In a 20-year life that includes countless transformative moments, this one carried the greatest throw-weight.

When she shared her father's letter and her first tattoo on Instagram, she wrote: "I feel that this has shaped me into who I am today. My life would have gone a completely different direction it weren't for the struggles myself and my family have gone through."

Two lines leaped from the page into her soul: "Hopefully I'll be here to see you make the Olympics" and "I will be with you always." 

"My dad was the first to believe in my Olympic dreams. He didn't know what sport, nor did I, but he knew what I was capable of at the age of six," Rogers told B/R. "He knew that I could achieve greatness, and I want to honor everything he believed in. I am very intrinsically motivated, but on the rough days, it is a constant reminder that I'm not done, I have not 'arrived,' there is still work to be done."

Both the timing and content of her dad's letter irrevocably pointed Rogers in a direction that may take her to Salt Lake City, Rio and beyond. 

"I knew I would receive it when I turned 18, but I had no idea what it would say. I happened to get it at a very rough time in my life and right around when I had decided to commit fully to weightlifting. I had tossed around the idea of the Olympics in my head prior to then, but once I read that I knew I had to go for it with everything I had," she said. 

Rogers often wears a bracelet that belonged to her father. "The bracelet that gave you strength in your hard times of treatments and procedures continues to give me strength when I most need it," she wrote on Instagram.

Her DNA also contains some patriotic badassery, no doubt contributing to her pride in wearing Team USA's colors. Her paternal grandfather, Navy Capt. Gerald B. Rogers, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He is buried alongside her grandmother and namesake, Martha Rogers, in Arlington National Cemetery. 

Even with this backstory, Rogers doesn't carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. Rather, she powers rounded pieces of iron or rubber above her head in 100-plus pound increments anywhere between 16 to 94 times each week, depending on how close she is to competition.

She also doesn't subscribe to fairy tales or magic, despite living and training less than 30 miles from the kingdom of Mickey Mouse and land of Harry Potter. 

Credit: Eric Prestwood at LiftingLife (via USA Weightlifting)

Her secret potion consists of multiple reps, hours of conditioning and an unbending attitude built upon raw athleticism. Having everything to prove doesn't hurt. 

One glaring example of this athletic ferocity occurred at Altamonte CrossFit gym's Christmas party on Dec. 20, 2013.

Daring attendees of all ages submitted themselves to a soul-crushing workout called "The 12 Days of Christmas" before they indulged in some non-paleo fare such as cookies, nachos and fried chicken. Modeled after the song of the same name, it consisted of a mixed-dozen dozen reps of various exercises including front squats, deadlifts, burpees, jumping lunges, double-under jump ropes and a 400-meter run.

Rogers, then 18, finished her session with the evening's lowest-posted time—until a man in the last group beat her. While everyone else in attendance enjoyed the holiday repast, a quinoa muffin or two and some oxygen reclamation, Rogers angrily and profanely demanded the gym's clock be reset so she could take another run at the leaderboard.

Repeating the workout alone, she shaded the best time of the night clean by about 30 seconds.

"I am entirely too competitive for my own good. Anything and everything is a competition for me," Rogers said. "It's good to a certain extent, but it can also catch up to me sometimes."

Mattie Rogers sets the USA female clean and jerk record in her weight class as her coach, Daniel Camargo, celebrates.
Mattie Rogers sets the USA female clean and jerk record in her weight class as her coach, Daniel Camargo, celebrates.Photo via Eric Prestwood at LiftingLife (via USA Weightlifting)

Before you ask, Rogers was tested for drugs eight times in 2015, including three times at her Apopka, Florida, home and twice in Camargo's gym. She passed them all.

"They show up with the testing kit ready to go. They know her by name," Camargo said. "Whenever it happens, she'll post about it. She wants everyone to know she's clean." 

Her personal record in the two Olympic weight movements—the snatch and the clean and jerk—place her far ahead of her nearest American competitor in the 69-kilogram (151.8 lbs) weight class.

Members of the Olympic weightlifting team are not simply chosen for being the best in their particular weight class, however. They must reach a total that gives them the best chance of winning their weight class versus the chances other athletes have of winning their classes.

Camargo believes that magic number for Rogers will be a combined score in each movement of 245 kilograms, or 539 pounds. Her current American records in each lift, set at a meet in Philadelphia in February, are 105 kilograms for the snatch and 133 kilograms for the clean and jerk.

After Rogers wrecked her car last week, she was given a Challenger as a replacement for a day. That soon sparked a mini-social-media campaign by her followers to lobby Dodge for a full-time Challenger.

But there were no free rides for Rogers in weightlifting. She angrily rebuffs claims that "luck" is involved in her athletic success. Any potential Olympic dreams will be realized as a result of lifting a whole lot of weight a whole lot of times, while keeping pace mentally and emotionally.

"There are plenty of days where you simply just do not feel like training, your body hurts so bad you don't want to push through the workout, you let your mind get in the way of letting your body do what it needs to do," she said. "That also carries over into competition; if you doubt yourself at all, the results will not be there."

This split image shows the development in Rogers from her first competitive meet at age 17, at left, to her appearance at age 20 in the 2015 University Nationals.
This split image shows the development in Rogers from her first competitive meet at age 17, at left, to her appearance at age 20 in the 2015 University Nationals.Credit: Instagram/Mattiecakesssss

The chore of competitive Olympic weightlifting involves much more than just picking stuff up and putting it down, said Camargo, a former competitive lifter.

"The psychological development, the mental strength, the flexibility, the mobility, diet, maintaining body weight are all factors," he said. "Mattie wants to conquer them all."

There are pluses and minuses in her quest for perfection, Camargo said. "The good moments include the small victories she achieves in the gym. At her level, the attention to detail that could complicate things for others makes a big difference."

And the bad?

"There are times when it's appropriate to call it a loss for the day, when something isn't working, and you have to call it a day. She doesn't have the mentality to adjust and call it a day. When something doesn't work, it's not a defeat."

Rogers coaches children when she's not training full time. The kids gravitate toward her without having any clue that someone who could be competing at Rio in 2016 is mentoring them.

"It is my job to get them excited about the sport and educate and teach them as they progress. My only advice is to just go for it," she said. "It is not for everyone, but for some, they have really found their passion and their confidence within the sport, women especially."

In the whole push for perfection and a possible trip to the Olympics, Rogers never needs to look far for motivation.

So, who are "they"?

"'They' simply stands for anyone who has doubts," she said.

Those folks are getting harder and harder to find.

Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist. He tweets @BillSperos and @RealOBF. On any given day, he's usually the oldest, least competitive, slowest and heaviest person working out at Altamonte CrossFit.

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