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Thursday, May 31, 2012
Updated: June 4, 10:40 AM ET
Mangold, weightlifting's rock star

By Carmen R. Thompson
ESPN The Magazine

In a couple of months, Holley Mangold will go to London, step onto a weightlifting platform and compete for the title of Strongest Woman on the Planet.

But first, she will do a cartwheel.

Not long before competition time in the warm-up room at ExCeL London, the Olympic weightlifting venue, the 22-year-old Ohio native will launch her 5-foot-8, 330-pound frame through the air with startling quickness and gracefully stick the landing on her pre-competition good-luck cartwheel. When she's right-side up again, she'll be greeted by the wide-eyed looks of some competitors and coaches in the room, who'll be staring at her like she's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. And her face will break into a broad grin, first because she has seen that look on people's faces about a million times before, but more importantly, because it will be game time.

"I'm going to do my best to make it happen," she said. "I didn't want to go to the Olympics just to go."

In March, Mangold qualified for this fantastic journey, one that not long ago she, too, barely imagined she could make. That she'd felt queasy about, even. As she stood on the platform at the Olympic weightlifting trials in Columbus, Ohio, about to attempt the lifts that would get her there, her biggest obstacle wasn't the barbell; it was the nerves that had gnawed at her in the months leading up to that moment.

"Every night I'd dream about the trials, and every morning I'd wake up with heartburn," said Mangold. "Some nights I dreamed my lifts went great and I'd make the team -- other nights, they wouldn't go so great."

But she shook all that off, channeling the energy from her cheering section made up of her family and her idol, 2000 U.S. Olympic super heavyweight bronze medalist Cheryl Haworth. She nailed a 242-pound snatch and a 320-pound clean and jerk for a new personal best total of 562 pounds, good enough to beat out 13 competitors across six weight classes and lock up one of only two spots on Team USA. Mangold finished second to Sarah Robles, 24, and they'll represent the U.S. in the super heavyweight class (165 pounds and up), attempting to become the first American medalists since Tara Nott won gold (at 106 pounds) and Haworth the bronze 12 years ago.

Holley Mangold
Holley Mangold played football in high school and her team reached the state title game.

Though Mangold was once projected to be a 2016 Olympic prospect, her skills have grown ahead of schedule, and so has her fan base. Two months out from the Games, her older brother Nick, the Jets' All-Pro center, has been deluged with interview requests, but not because he's having an especially newsworthy offseason.

"It's a well-deserved honor for Holley and people want to know about it," says Nick, 28, who cheered her on at trials. "When it was announced that she was going, it was definitely a proud moment for an older brother."

Little did he know that his little sister's rock-star weightlifting career would have its roots in the rough and tumble football games they played in the yard of the Mangolds' suburban home in Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton. By the time Holley was seven, she had developed the size and strength, not to mention the chutzpah, to suit up and play with the boys, just like Nick. Later, though, she had grown to well over 300 pounds, defied a bunch of naysayers and made Ohio high school football history, pushing big bodies around on the O-line all four years -- including to the state championship game.

"She is very competitive just like everyone else in our family," Nick said. "We are a very competitive family, we don't particularly like losing."

Still, she had no Division I college or NFL career to aspire to. Casting around for a sport she could pursue to elite heights, she considered powerlifting with its three well-known lifts -- bench press, squats and dead lift -- because she had done them all through football and a side stint shot-putting on the track team. But she changed direction upon learning that powerlifting's less popular cousin, Olympic-style weightlifting, had become an official event in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics. She had experimented with its two explosive lifts before, the snatch (lifting the barbell from the floor straight above the head in one motion) and the clean and jerk (bringing a barbell up to the chest, then above the head). In competitions, the highest total of both lifts wins. A local coach encouraged her to start practicing them regularly, and three weeks in, something magical happened: she experienced a sort of weightlifter's nirvana.

"If you lift the weight perfectly, with your back tight, pushing off the floor like you're pushing through the floor with the bar close to your body, bringing your hips in with a force of unbelievable-ness," she explained, "and plant into the weight, controlling it upward, not outward -- it creates this beautiful, wonderful, weightless feeling. No matter what the weight is on the bar, it will feel weightless if you do it right."

Holley Mangold
Holley Mangold hit a 145-kilogram clean-and-jerk at the weightlifting trials in March to earn a spot in the London Olympics.

The sensation was so intoxicating, she was immediately hooked.

"I remember saying I want to figure out how to do that again and again," she said. But as luck would have it, she couldn't just do it again. The secret to attaining that nirvana-like feeling? Technique. Many say it's 80 percent of a successful lift, compared to 20 percent strength. It's what allows physically smaller competitors to outlift much larger ones. Nailing the mechanics of both lifts exactly the same way every time irrespective of the amount lifted is a career-long endeavor Mangold likens to working on "a 400-pound golf swing."

While she didn't perform another perfect lift for a long while, she did stun the weightlifting community by qualifying and then winning the 2008 Junior Nationals with a combined total of 408 pounds, after just three months of training. Haworth, who saw Mangold compete at this early stage, was struck by her potential.

"Holley's sheer power, as well as her agility as a larger super heavyweight, were really impressive," Haworth said. "She also had presence, the kind of personality that could rekindle interest in women's weightlifting and take it to new levels."

Mangold's splash into the sport wasn't greeted with kudos from everyone, though. She received some unpleasant blowback from critics about her weight (then, she was at 390 pounds), the worst of it coming from fellow competitors on a 2009 trip to Bucharest, Romania, for the Junior World Weightlifting Championships. Accustomed to being the life of the party and a friend-making machine everywhere she went, Mangold suddenly found herself ostracized by all the other juniors.

"I was the newcomer and nobody wanted anything to do with me," she said. "They were talking trash, saying I was an embarrassment to the USA because I was so huge. It was miserable and I felt like, if people in weightlifting were going to be like this, I wanted to quit. But then again, I was already used to people telling me I couldn't do something and then I'd go and do it. That's what gave me the attitude of not caring what people thought anymore."

So though she was unsettled by her peers' behavior, she gutted out the competition and finished with a personal record total of 434 pounds. She returned home more determined than ever to keep weightlifting despite the bumpy transition.

Coming from her brotherhood-of-football background, the small-club vibe of Olympic-style weightlifting was unfamiliar territory to Mangold. Plus, trailblazing in a popular sport like football had the distinct advantage of, well, popularity. As her results continued to improve and her knowledge of the sport grew, she often found herself educating people on the basics of weightlifting, especially women. "We could have so many more female weightlifters if women just realized that they're not going to get as huge as I am," Mangold said.

"Her size has never bothered her at all. ... In Holley's mind, everything is right in the world," said her mother, Therese Mangold. "She's very comfortable with where she is, and she's always been like that. None of the guys [in high school] commented about her size, well, other than they thought it was great that she could block for them.

"Nothing about her size ever got her down at all. She totally on her own has that attitude. I did nothing at all to help her with that. I think that was inborn."

Holley Mangold
Holley Mangold: 'I'm going to do my best [to medal]. I didn't want to go to the Olympics just to go.'

Redefining 'feminine'

Though Olympic-style weightlifting was a part of the very first Olympics way back in 1896, it took 104 years for a women's event to be included. The only difference between men's and women's versions is the number of weight classes (eight for men and seven for women, ranging from 106-165 pounds plus). While the smallest female weightlifters could easily be mistaken for gymnasts, the super heavyweights are the sport's most visible ambassadors. Trampling on a lot of societal expectations of what women are physically capable of is unavoidable collateral damage for them. Fact is, while they're not as strong as the strongest guys, they're as, or even more, powerful than the vast majority of average guys.

There are critics who have considered weightlifting to be, well, unfeminine. This idea has been perpetuated by a bunch of old myths which have stood the test of time. The biggest is simply that lifting even the lightest weights will turn a woman into a manly, muscle-bound she-male. But, in reality, no amount of weightlifting would create super muscle mass in the average woman. Strength, definition and tone -- yes. Big, bulky muscles -- no. Women don't have enough natural testosterone for that to happen.

But this image-related public-relations disaster is likely traceable back to the three decade-long heyday of steroid use by Eastern European countries at the Olympics in the 1960s-'80s, especially by the former East Germany, whose women's teams became comical references/stereotypes for a masculine-looking female athlete. They won tons of medals, but the dude-like ladies were all anybody remembered.

"That image stuck because it was such a shock," says Haworth, 29, who retired in 2010. "But it's really unfriendly toward women in this day and age, with all the drug testing elite athletes go through. The idea that weightlifting makes you masculine and is somehow bad for women's health is really quite incorrect. You don't get burly or suddenly have to buy a hot lather machine and shave every morning. That's a ridiculous notion; there are actually a ton of health benefits to weightlifting."

Female lifters continue to make phenomenal strength gains. South Korean super heavyweight Jang Mi-Ran won Olympic gold in 2008, setting records for the individual lifts and combined total (719 pounds), but Zhou Lulu of China became the new Strongest Woman in the World last November, upping the aggregate record to 723 pounds.

While Mangold had a bit of inoculation to the negative sentiments thanks to hearing similar blather all through her football career, it probably wasn't a coincidence that much of the media coverage she received made sure to highlight her love of fingernail polish and other girly stuff. However, on a certain level, like every other girl on the planet, she had thoughts about losing weight, although her primary motivators were improving her overall conditioning and the possibility of adding to her totals by dropping some pounds.

Her size has never bothered her at all. ... In Holley's mind, everything is right in the world. She's very comfortable with where she is, and she's always been like that. ... Nothing about her size ever got her down at all. She totally on her own has that attitude. I did nothing at all to help her with that. I think that was inborn.

-- Therese Mangold on her daughter, Holley

After landing a coveted spot at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., she finally formed some of the camaraderie with other weightlifters she had been craving, and also committed to losing weight. She amazingly shed 90 pounds, coming down to 300, over about five months. Olympic-style weightlifting demands more quickness and agility than you'd think for a sport where you stand in one spot. In the super-heavyweight class, size is obviously an asset, but not just weight for weight's sake. The trick is to find the weight that allows the lifter to generate power without sacrificing explosiveness.

But as challenging and rewarding as the weight loss was, adopting the super-strict lifestyle of an Olympic athlete was nearly as tough. MTV's reality show "True Life" featured Mangold in an episode called, "I'm the Big Girl," and their cameras followed her struggle to find a balance, capturing a pivotal point in her weightlifting journey at the 2010 American Open in Cincinnati. There, she tanked, failing to get a qualifying total in the competition. In the aftermath of the loss, she wasn't asked back to the Olympic Training Center, a demoralizing setback.

"After that, she actually developed a thing where she connected hard work with failure," remembers her friend and fellow weightlifter Drew Dillon. "She felt that she had put in all of this sacrifice, effort and investment, and then failed anyway. But the problem was, though she was extremely successful with the weight loss, it didn't actually line up to a specific goal."

Enter Columbus-based technique guru Mark Cannella, of the Columbus Weightlifting Club, who promptly suspended all of Mangold's strength training and focused solely on deconstructing her lifts and assessing every aspect of her performance.

"Holley was already unbelievably strong," said Cannella. "So for a whole year we worked on the simplest of things, her stance, positions, rhythm and timing, and movement with the barbell."

Together, they determined that dropping 90 pounds had also made her fingers skinnier, negatively altering her hook grip (positioning of hands around the bar). Mangold figured out that she had felt too weak at 300 pounds and was strongest and quickest at about 330.

On the lifestyle side of things, Dillon advised her that stress-busting through socializing was disrupting crucial sleep, icing and recovery time. She agreed to cut back, and with Cannella getting after all the little things in the gym, she soon obliterated her personal records a couple times over, jumping up 88 pounds from 474 to 562 total in a year's time. She went back and won the 2011 American Open. "It was a whole bunch of little changes that really made a huge difference," Mangold said.

Can't wait for London

Every day I see my dream
Every day I see my
Every day I see my dream
Every day I see my dream
--"Yes" by LMFAO

The dog days are over
The dog days are gone
Can you hear the horses
'Cause here they come
-- "Dog Days Are Over" by Florence and the Machine

These are lyrics from the two songs Mangold listens to as part of her competition-day psyche-up regimen. Two songs. Over and over. While she's stretching, sitting, waiting, preparing -- those tunes and lyrics roll through her head, the insistent thump of the dance floor anthem and then the rousing rock-n-roll soul of a call to arms. Both are tools to clear her mind, and will be on blast in London.

With the title of World's Strongest Woman on the line, tickets to the super heavyweight competition will be a hot commodity. Though distractions will be the toughest test, Haworth notes that sticking to lift-day routines will be key to calming nerves about performing on the sport's biggest stage.

"The Olympics is about putting as much weight on the bar as you can lift on that day, period," she said. "In that way, it's the most pure, simple competition there is."

Mangold can't wait. Her family will be there to cheer her on, minus Nick, who will be at Jets training camp but plans to call or text his well wishes and watch on TV. As for getting to the podium, Mangold, whose personal-best total is 562 pounds, said she's aiming to lift north of 617, which should put her in the range for bronze. With a little bit of luck, she'll pull it off.

And she's got just the good-luck charm for that.