How A 4-foot 11 Gymnast Transformed Into A World-Class Weightlifter

By David Briggs
The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Alyssa Ritchey may be 4-foot-11 and weigh just 108 pounds but she is one of Team USA’s tallest hopes in weightlifting. As David Briggs reports, “If she gets the occasional double take — aren’t weightlifters supposed to be big, burly men? — no sweat. Ritchey loves shattering tired old stereotypes.”

The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

Like Alyssa Ritchey always imagined as a gymnast growing up on a cattle farm in northwest Ohio, she hopes to be in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

There is but one little twist.

In her dreams now, she will not be there on the bars.

She will be there bending them.

Yes, Ritchey, signing in at 4-foot-11, 108 pounds, is one of Team USA’s tallest hopes in weightlifting.

How cool is that?

“I had the Olympic dream,” the 29-year-old Pettisville native said. “I just didn’t know it would come about in the sport I’d least think.”

I met Ritchey the other day at her home on a quiet street in Perrysburg, where neighbors used to wonder why she and her boyfriend had the only cars parked outside in the snow.

Inside their two-car garage is her makeshift gym.

Six mornings a week, after brewing a pot of coffee, Ritchey heads to the open-air sanctum, flips on some Latin music, then spends the next two hours or so pumping unholy amounts of iron.

Nothing to see here, everybody, just the world-class athlete next door lifting the equivalent of a refrigerator above her head.

In Olympic weightlifting — one of nine sports that dates to the first modern Olympiad in Greece in 1896 — there are two lifts: the snatch and clean and jerk.
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In the first, competitors raise the bar from the ground to above the head in one fell movement. In the second, they bring the bar to their chest, then jerk it above the head in a two-part action. Their score is based on the combined total of the two lifts.

Ritchey last year became the fifth American women to lift double her weight in the clean and jerk. She has only gotten stronger.

Fresh off a personal-best 102-kilogram (225-pound) lift at a weekend USA Weightlifting national event in Valley Forge, Pa., she currently is the top-rated American in her 49-kg weight class and fourth among all classes. The top four lifters — based on an elaborate points system — will represent the U.S. in Tokyo.

Despite lifting professionally for less than two years, Ritchey has no plans to be anywhere else.

“I’m not one of those people who just competes for fun,” she said. “I compete because I freaking love to win and I love the sport.”

I know what some of you are thinking.

Wait, what … the … what?

Sometimes, Ritchey can’t believe it either, her road the one never traveled.

Ritchey was a gymnast until she was 12, then turned her focus to track and volleyball. She participated in both at Pettisville High and ran track for a year at the University of Toledo.

Naturally, Olympic weightlifter was the next logical step.

OK, not quite.

After moving on to Grand Valley State in Michigan, where she enjoyed the life of a regular student, her competitive bug returned.

Ritchey joined a CrossFit gym, embracing the fitness craze that incorporates high-intensity elements of everything from gymnastics to running to weightlifting. Next thing she knew, she was traveling the country to competitions, straining her body to its limit.

It was only in fall 2016 the aha moment arrived.

Worn down, Ritchey planned to take a year off when her CrossFit sponsor — recognizing her uncommon strength — suggested she try giving lifting a full-time go. Ritchey demurred.

“The whole point of stopping CrossFit was to not be a competitive athlete,” she said. “I knew myself. If I’m competing, I’m going to be all in.”

But Ritchey reconsidered, then, unable to help herself, indeed went all in. She cut 15 pounds to compete in a more favorable weight class — goodbye, Oreos and cheeseburgers — and hasn’t stopped taking names since. Ritchey said she never has felt more fulfilled.

If she gets the occasional double take — aren’t weightlifters supposed to be big, burly men? — no sweat. Ritchey loves shattering tired old stereotypes.

“You’re so tiny,” she hears. “How do you lift so much weight?”

“Just strong,” Ritchey shrugs.

“My whole life, I’ve been a thick, small woman, thick with muscles. When people ask my weight, I don’t mind sharing it. There is no shame in what I look like, whether I was thicker or leaner or weak or strong.

“My biggest thing is I just want to be so strong. I want to be an example for women. The biggest thing we just need to show people and show women that being strong is OK.

“It’s so cool to feel this strong.”

We’ll all have to take her word on the last part.

Ritchey is in a class of her own, her inspiring Olympic dream burning bright as ever. Same as she always imagined.

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