Olympians and Pioneers: Celebrating American Weightlifting’s Female Greats

I am a weightlifting fan.

More specifically, I am an American Weightlifting Fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching Lydia Valentin and cheered my heart out for her to medal at the Olympics, but there’s something different about cheering for your own country’s Olympians. I live and breathe for  it, and probably will until the day I die.

Merriam-Webster defines Fan as:

  1. 1 :  an enthusiastic devotee (as of a sport or a performing art) usually as a spectator
  2. 2 :  an ardent admirer or enthusiast (as of a celebrity or a pursuit)

Also noting that it is short for the word fanatic.

You know what?

I’m fine with that. I aspire to be just like the American greats that came before me. I mention this only because of the number of U.S. athletes who tell me their goal is to be at the top of this sport. If you were to tell me that’s your goal also, I’d tell you that you need to get on this level. Women’s weightlifting first entered the Olympic Games in 2000. Since then, we’ve had 11 female Olympians from the United States. That’s it. 11. If you’re such a fan, why can’t you name them all? What basketball player doesn’t know Michael Jordan or LeBron James? What baseball player can’t name Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson?

Some of you might know these ladies without reading any further. For those of you who don’t, I’m going to make this easier for you by introducing you to all of them right here, in one article. I’m also adding an honorary member you should know in this sport if — you don’t already her.

Besides the fact that these women paved a path for us in this sport before anyone knew what weightlifting really was, fought through training before the glory of social media, and set American Records (some that still stand today), they are all amazing people off the platform as well. In addition to their long lists of weightlifting achievements, I’ve asked them to give you their favorite quotes and give you a little of their perspective.

2000 Olympians

  1. Robin Goad (Byrd-Goad) (48 kg)
  • 10x National Champion (1988, 1989, 1991-1996, 1999, 2001)
  • Senior World Champion 1994
  • Pan American Games Champion 1999
  1. Tara Nott (Cunningham) (48 kg)
  • 7x National Champion (1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002-2004)
  • 5x World Team Member (1997-1999, 2003, 2004)
  • Pan American Games Champion (1999, 2003)
  • Olympic Games Gold Medalist in 2000
  • Olympic Games Team Member in 2004
  • American Record Holder Clean & Jerk 102.5kg/Total 185kg

3. Cara Heads (Slaughter) (75 kg)

  • 8x National Champion (1997, 1998, 2000, 2002-2005, 2008)
  • 5x American Open Champion (1999, 2002-2004, 2007)
  • Silver Medalist in the Pan American Championships in 1999
  • Titan Games Champion in 2004
  • Pan American Games Member in 2003
  • Bronze Medalist in the Junior World Championships in 1997
  • Former American Record Holder

“Teach athletes the skill of making lifts in competition and going 6 for 6, especially in the beginning. Instead of overreaching for a total, slowly build your total over time.

New and developing lifters should earn the right to attempt heavy lifts in competition if they aspire to be good at competing. Just because an athlete can make a lift in training doesn’t mean they have the skill-set to make the same weight in competition right away – truly heavy weight, relatively speaking, requires technical proficiency, precision, and focus.”


  1. Cheryl Haworth (75 kg +)
  • 11x National Champion (1998-2008)
  • Bronze Medalist in Olympic Games in 2000
  • 3x Olympic Team Member (2000, 2004, 2008)
  • Pan American Games Champion in 1999
  • 2x Junior World Champion (2001, 2002)
  • Youth World Record Holder Snatch 125kg
  • American Record Holder Snatch 128kg/Clean & Jerk 161kg/Total 287kg

Favorite quote: “It’s not in the years, it’s the mileage.” – Indiana Jones

2004 Olympians

*This year we saw the return of Tara Nott Cunningham and Cheryl Haworth.

2008 Olympians

*Also another return for Cheryl Haworth, plus the lifters below.

  1. Melanie Roach (53 kg)
  • 7x National Champion (1998-2000, 2003, 2006-2008)
  • 4x World Team Member (1998, 1999, 2006, 2007)
  • Bronze Medalist in the Pan American Championships in 2006 and Pan American Games in 2007
  • American Record Holder Clean & Jerk 113kg/Total 193kg

Favorite quote: “My favorite quote was taught to me by Coach John Thrush. He always emphasized and reminded me to ‘Enjoy the process’.”

Melanie says, “My advice to a new lifter would be to enjoy the daily grind, the training process, and treat every training session like it’s the last time you’ll ever touch a bar. Forget how strong you wish you were or want to be (or once were) and GO TO WORK!”

  1. Natalie Woolfolk (Burgener) (63 kg)
  • 4x National Champion (2005-2008)
  • 4x World Team Member (2005-2007, 2010)
  • Bronze Medalist in the Pan American Games in 2007
  • American Record Holder Snatch 100kg
  1. Carissa Gump (Gordon) (63 kg)
  • 5x American Open Champion (2002-2006)
  • 4x World Team Member (2002, 2003, 2005, 2007)
  • Former American Record Holder Clean & Jerk

Favorite quote: “A mind troubled by doubt cannot focus on the course to victory.” – Arthur Golden

Carissa says, “The hardest lesson that I learned from this sport is that I was my own worst enemy. If I walked up to the bar and thought gosh, ‘this is heavy or wow I really have no business trying this,’ 99.9% of the time I would miss that weight. If I walked up to the weight and was confident, I would make the weight 100% of the time. I was always strong enough to do the weights that I was doing, but my lack of self-confidence is what held me back.”

2012 Olympians

  1. Sarah Robles (75 kg +)
  • 4x National Champion (2009-2012)
  • 4x World Team Member
  • 4x Pan American Team Member
  • Bronze Medalist in 2016 Olympics
  • Olympic Games Team Member in 2016

Favorite quote: “I do believe that bear was wearin’ people’s clothes.” – Magnificent 7

Sarah says, “One thing I’ve learned over my years of lifting is that it’s OK to feel what I’m feeling at the time. I just have to work with my emotions. If I’m feeling down because lifting isn’t going right, I remember it’s not the first, and it won’t be the last time I’ll feel that way. Training always has turned around and it always will. It’s reliable that way. The other thing I’ve done this last quad that helps me cope is having a life outside of lifting. It acts as a distraction and its gives me a better perspective on things.”

  1. Holley Mangold (75 kg +)
  • 2x World Team Member (2014, 2015)
  • Pan American Games Team Member 2015
  • Junior World Team Member 2009

Favorite quote: “Looking at motivational quotes hoping it changes you is like looking at a treadmill hoping you’ll lose weight.”

When I said Holley about her favorite destination brought about by weightlifting, she said, “I think the obvious choice for me would be London for the 2012 Olympics. Although that will always be one of the best and most amazing times of my life, I think I should speak outside of that since the Olympics is a totally different situation than a normal meet.

I think Cuba would have to be one of my tops for many reasons: beaches, the people, and the culture. Going to Cuba right after the border opened up after 50+ years has to be one of the craziest and coolest trips I’ve ever been on. Cuba’s beaches, old time cars, and forsaken buildings were something out of a movie. I remember how short the flight was and how nervous I was to be going over there. It didn’t help that when we first got on the bus we saw graffiti on a building that depicted Fidel Castro punching Uncle Sam. As the trip went on though, we were met with amazing, helpful people that were happy to see Americans in Cuba again. It is also that first country that I’ve been to that didn’t have any WIFI, and gave me an overwhelming sense of not trusting the government. The trip was made even better because I roomed with Melanie Roach, 2008 Olympian, and I won the competition for my first (for now) International Gold Medal.”

2016 Olympians

*This year marks a return for Sarah Robles, along with the athletes below.

  1. Morghan King (48 kg)
  • 3x National Champion (2013-2014, 2016)
  • 3x World Team Member
  • 2x Pan American Team Member
  • American Record Holder Snatch 83kg
  1. Jenny Arthur (75 kg)
  • 3x National Champion (2013-2016)
  • 4x World Team Member
  • Pan American Silver Medalist
  • Junior Pan American Gold Medalist
  • American Record Holder Snatch 107kg/Clean & Jerk 138kg/Total 244kg

Favorite Quote: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” – Maya Angelou

Jenny says, “I love this quote. [It] reminds me that it’s not about what happens to you, but how you react to it. I take this mindset with me in all aspects of life. You gotta believe then battle it out.”

In addition to these 11, there’s one additional lady that I feel like should never need an introduction.


Ursula Garza Papandrea

She’s an “OG” and started lifting in 1987; Ursula has had a continuous presence in our sport since. Before she became the President of USA Weightlifting, Papandrea had an amazing lifting career complete with 2 National Championships, representing the United States in 5 World Championships (1992-1996), and was a 2x Olympic Festival Champion. The Olympic Festival was an amateur multi-sport event held in the United States by the U.S. Olympic Committee in the years between the Olympic Games. Keep in mind that women were not part of the Olympic Games during her lifting career.

Bottom line: If you want to be a great, know our greats. These are the ladies that came before us, the ones to mimic, the ones that set the standards for where we want to go as lifters. Many of their American Records still stand today and almost all of them are still involved in the sport. They coach, they watch, they cheer, and they are all very approachable lady leaders. Show your respect by taking the time to learn the athletes that paved our way.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @coffeesgym on Instagram