Updated: May 20, 2022
April 24, 1992, was the first time I heard, “Girls don’t do that. Girls don’t lift weights.” As bizarre as that statement was for me to hear—I had been pegged as a toddler for a possible Olympic berth in the sport of Olympic weightlifting—it was pretty much true in the B.C. (before CrossFit) era. As a 7-year-old girl, I just didn’t know it yet.
It wouldn’t be until 1999 that I would train with other like-minded barrier breakers, and it wasn’t until adulthood that I realized how big of a bubble my 2x Olympian dad had managed to create to allow me to excel in the sport at a time when girls just “didn’t do that.”
To be sure, winning the Best Female Lifter trophy at competitions rang hollow to the only female lifter. And I’m pretty sure my bulletproof immune system stemmed from the single toilet in the adult-male-only, non-climate-controlled cinderblock gym I cut my teeth in (I sometimes still wonder whether that toilet’s been cleaned since the last time I did it during Clinton’s first administration.)
But beating the 12-year-old boys as a 7-year-old girl carried a sweetness to it that would carry me through. I was in such a bubble, in fact, that it took until college for me to realize my Sports Palace “Nothing feels as good as a nice snatch” shirt was a hit at high school for an entirely different reason than the barbell movement it depicted. I just thought people liked my shirt because it showed a cool weightlifter before weightlifting was cool. True story.
However, the fun anecdotes stopped when I hit motherhood in the sport. Leading up to the 2010 World Championships, I was the only parent on the team, and I was a single parent at that. At the time, the rules of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs—it is now known as the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center—were that, if you lived in the complex, you had full access to all services: free room, free food, no electric or utility or other bills, free sports medicine, free sports psychology, sports science, and massages. The works.
If you did not live in the complex, you got nothing except the privilege of being allowed to drive onto the complex and train with your team during the day, and you had to leave by curfew at night. Because dependents were understandably not allowed to live in the complex, I was denied access to the all-or-nothing benefits provided to the rest of Team USA. No food. No sports medicine. No room to rest between 2-a-day workouts (I napped on a couch in the lobby). Nada. Quite literally, because I was a single mom, I received less support than my teammates.
When I asked our High-Performance Director at the time if he could put my name on the room roster so that I could have access to food and sports medicine, he said no, because I wasn’t sleeping there. I told him I had no problem keeping my job to continue paying for my own apartment off the complex and didn’t want anything special. I only wanted the same benefits my teammates did. Still no. When I asked him outright, “If I give up custody of [child], would you give me a room, and I’d have access to the other services?” When he replied with his single word, “Yes,” I told him what he could do with one of the more colorful 4-letter verbs, hung up, and cried.
A sponsor heard about my issues being able to afford food at the Training Center and agreed to cover a month of my meals leading up to the World Championships. This person was a celebrity in the strength training world at the time (he has since passed away), and I happily agreed to meet him in the cafeteria to share my story with him. During that conversation, I knew I needed to make a good impression to seal the deal. There were already times when I wondered what I was doing trying to balance whether I had enough gas money to get my kid to preschool and myself to the gym and back, or whether I needed to pick only one to do that day until a bank transfer posted.
Over the course of my first (and only) conversation with him, he educated me on what nontraditional pornography he liked, why he thought pictures were better than words for describing things (more efficient), and why people are so uptight about such natural desires. I thanked him, took his money, and would occasionally use the discomfort I endured as justification for sneaking out an ice cream cone for my kid.
A few weeks later, I broke my back during a training session and was denied access to sports medicine. They had to treat me any way, though, because I was unable to walk to my car. I was denied an X-ray, was misdiagnosed and competed at the World Championships in Turkey anyway. I couldn’t walk very well, but if my feet were planted, I could lift up and down okay. Plus, competing would make me eligible to become an Elite Athlete Representative to make sure my story never happens to anyone again, ever.
Ironically, at that same competition, the National Team coach forgot about me because I wasn’t going to earn any points for the Olympic Team qualification. He was busy with one of our other star athletes. By the time I was able to get access to the warm-up room because the coach had my badge, I had 6 minutes until I had to be on the platform for my opening attempt. I didn’t have enough time to complete enough warm-ups, so we lowered my opening weight to where my warm-up weights were in progress.
Two years later, I found my lifting shoes in the back of my closet and noticed my left shoelaces had never been tied.
I found out a few weeks later about a fun twist on our Elite Athlete Health Insurance program: You only received health insurance if you were in the Top 7 women. If you were injured and unable to compete, you could not defend your ranking and fell out of the Top 7…and subsequently lost your health insurance. I was able to seek out a single back surgery before being dropped by insurance, but the travel between Colorado Springs and the Olympic Team surgeon in California and the MRI were both on me. No rehab, no follow-up care, no additional operations if the first surgery didn’t fully take.
It didn’t, and I continued to lose function in both of my legs, but my left faster than my right.
Here I was, a 25-year-old single mother with nerve damage and slowly losing her ability to walk, hooked on pain meds, without any health insurance at all. I committed myself to athlete advocacy and happened to find a really cool guy who heard my story and provided free rehab. It worked, and we were married on the 1-year anniversary of the day we met!
After 12 years of being elected by my fellow athletes to almost every committee available, eventually serving as Chairman of USA Weightlifting’s Ethics Committee, I am happy to see so many changes across the entire Olympic and Paralympic movement, but I’m not done yet. This August, I will be starting my law school journey at the University of Denver with a joint MBA and look forward to adding even more tools to my arsenal to bring equity to athletes across all sports and situations.
Rachel currently resides in Arvada, CO, with her husband, three children aged 6-16, a 13-lb dog, a 14-lb cat, a bearded dragon, a leopard gecko, and possibly her kid’s science teacher’s tarantula for the summer. In addition to pursuing a law degree and MBA, she works as an event planner, bringing her passion for JEDI and accessibility to sporting events across the country.