On a recent drive home from the gym, my daughter referred to herself as an "average" lifter. That comforted me as we headed to Philadelphia a couple of weekends ago for her to compete in USA Weightlifting's Junior National Championships. My daughter sees herself as "average." Phew. I won't have to have that awkward talk about expectations and perspective.
At 17, Celia is one of the best lifters in the nation -- competing in the A session at nationals, which means that she's ranked as one of the top 20 girls in the country between 17 and 20 years old in her weight class of 58-63 kilos. Last year at youth nationals, she got a silver medal.
So, "average" is a relative term. In her case, it means that while going to the Olympics in 2020 isn't a forgone conclusion, it's also not out of the question. She's average among the truly elite. She has to go for it with all she's got, and will most likely have disappointments.
On those waves of emotions she experiences as an athlete, my only job as her mom is to ballast, no matter how tossed I also feel.
A life in competitive lifting is not what I wanted for her, initially. She started the sport as a form of physical therapy after she injured her back rowing. With a herniated disc, she was told to build muscles to strengthen her back. It wasn't intended to be anything more than that.
My husband and I, as her first coaches, saw surprising talent. She was supposed to be just deadlifting and squatting, but having watched people at our gym working on Olympic lifts for years, she picked up a bar and did a snatch -- almost perfectly. What was even more surprising, however, was the smile on her face. She loved it.
She spent a few months doing CrossFit with us, but we could see that she got more excited about lifting than anything else. So we got her a coach, and then we got out of her way. Together, she and her coach have run with her talent, to places we never expected.
Our job now is just to support her. It's up to her and her coach to tell us what they need from us. Otherwise, we just watch. In awe.
When her coach suggested that, based on what she was lifting in workouts, she could qualify to compete nationally, we brushed him off. But he was right. Less than a year after she started, she was on the big stage, surprising people. When she won that silver last year, my first thought was "Oh, crap." I was elated, proud and crying the purest tears, but that turned weightlifting from a hobby into something much less carefree. She went from obscurity to a high national ranking and was whisked off to the Olympic Training Center.
When Team USA calls and says they want your kid to report for a week of training in Colorado Springs, all expenses paid, you just say "yes" and get her on a plane. The national coaches wanted to watch her. They wanted her to have a taste of what would be in store if she kept going. So she went. She spent a week training alongside current and future Olympians, working out twice a day, living in the dorms -- the whole deal. She'd call home, exhausted, but utterly high on the experience.
"Is this something you want?" I asked, hesitantly. "Yes," she said, emphatically.
Part of my concern about going all-in on lifting was the difficulty of seeing my baby girl suddenly look like an independent adult as she competed on the stage, alone. But this elite level of athletics came with a level of pressure I've never applied or believed in. She now belonged not only to a system, but to a set of achievement-based goals that I was afraid would overshadow the importance of process.
I have never pushed "winning" or even "competing." It just isn't who I am. I am obsessed with process and metaphor, with finding the lessons in heartache and disappointment, as well as the mundane patterns in life. That's what helps you deal with the "real world." Victories are isolated experiences that people cling to in a way that always struck me as dangerous.
Every time I watch her not win, I think about how strong she is getting, inside. I think about the importance of finding power in personal achievement. I believe that the primary purpose of sport is to teach us about ourselves, and that my job as a parent is to raise someone who is resilient, focused and able to be part of a team -- not just a "winner." If that's your identity, what are you -- what happens to you -- when you don't win? I don't want her to build that emotional guillotine for herself.
No, leave that roller coaster to me. Watching her compete is the hardest thing I do. You watch them soaring so high, with all their hopes and dreams, and just like watching anyone you love on an edge, you want to protect them from the fall. Or at least know that you can put them back together again, if you need to.
And you know that's not how any of this works. She's on her own, really. So I hold my breath and watch her soar through my own clenched fingers.
The night before the meet is sleepless. My brain races with all the possibilities, formulating plans of how to handle everything from gold medals to serious injury. The day of, I'm manic. Do we have all the things we need? The moment of, I am on the verge of tears with a racing heart.
Each lift gets down to less than 20 seconds from start to finish, and it's either success or failure. Three attempts at the snatch. Three attempts at the clean and jerk. She who lifts the most weight, wins.
I've watched her succeed at nationals. I've also watched her miss every lift in competitions. And then I've watched her get herself together, figure out what went wrong, what to do next. The slow pace of "growing up" accelerates in those moments, and my baby girl becomes a strong woman before my very eyes.
Her good lifts make her one of the strongest lifters in the country. Her bad ones make her one of the strongest women I know.
She knows that sometimes you don't win, because someone else does, and that's all there is to it. The world neither owes, nor will give, you a trophy. How you find meaning, value and reward is entirely up to you.
We knew going in that she wasn't going to medal at nationals this year, which was comforting, in a way. She wasn't competing at the youth level anymore; these were the big girls now. She was the youngest and least experienced lifter in her group, and at 58.3 kilos in the 63-kilo weight class, she was far smaller than everyone else, which means a lot in a sport where mass moves mass. But she was still in the A session, still one of the best. All she had to do was her best, and although it wouldn't be enough to win, it would be enough to show she belonged there.
I prepared myself for the meet to start. I was a mess -- breath in the pit of my stomach, swirling tempestuously. Then, away we went.
She nailed her first snatch at 61 kilos. My heart calmed a little. She nailed the second snatch at 64 kilos. My heart rate returned to normal. Time for the third, at 67 kilos. She totally missed it. But that was actually my favorite moment: watching her smile and wave to the crowd before walking off the stage.
I looked at that kid, her grace under pressure, her undramatic walk back to prepare for the clean and jerk. She was smiling, calm.
I pictured a future in which hopes and disappointments collide in unexpected ways for her, as they do for everyone, and thought, "We're all good here." She can keep going, no matter what.
Alyssa Royse lives in Seattle, where she writes, speaks and does frequent television appearances about parenting, health, fitness and body image. She and her husband own Rocket CrossFit, where she can usually be found unless she's reading, writing or avoiding the chores on their little urban farm.