At the 2016 American Open in Orlando, Florida, Mattie Sasser set a personal record total of 201KG (442lb) in the process of winning the 58KG category. Many weightlifting fans, myself included, considered it a mild upset when she was victorious over American record holder Jessica Lucero. On that day in December, the American weightlifting community took notice that Sasser is a legitimate contender in this sport. She also left many people asking, “Who is she, and where did she come from?”
On March 5th, I had the opportunity to talk with the 2016 Olympian from the Marshall Islands. Sasser, who was born in the Marshall Islands and speaks Marshallese as her native language, owns dual citizenship between her native country and the United States. For those who do not know, the Marshall Islands is a small country of about 53,000 people in the southern Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between the state of Hawaii and the country of Australia. They have only been an independent country since 1979, and before that they had been a territory of the Pacific Islands under the control of the United States since World War II. Put in context: As a country they are only 5 years older than I am.
In the 2016 Olympics, the Marshall Islands sent five athletes to compete: two in athletics, two in swimming, and Mattie Sasser in weightlifting. In the process, she became the first athlete, of either gender, to represent the Marshall Islands country in weightlifting at the Olympics. Due to this historical first, the Olympic Committee of the Marshall Islands nominated her as the flag bearer for the Opening ceremonies.
Editor’s Note: At the athlete’s request, several quotes and events described below have been updated since the original interview and publication of this article.
Mattie Sasser (Team Marshall Islands / Mash Mafia Weightlifting, 58KG)
Hometown: Majuro, Marshall Islands
Current town: Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Education: Currently taking online English and Math classes and working with a tutor to earn her high school diploma.
- 2016 Olympian – 11th overall in the 58KG category
- 2016 American Open Champion – 58KG
- 2016 Oceania Champion – 58KG
- 2016 Junior World Championships – 7th overall in the 58KG category
- Oceania Senior Record Holder in the Clean & Jerk – 114KG in the 58KG category
- Oceania Junior Record Holder in the Snatch (85KG), Clean & Jerk (114KG) and Total (199KG)
Mike Graber: You were the first athlete from the Marshall Islands to compete at the Olympics in Weightlifting. What goes through your head when you hear that?
Mattie Sasser: I did not realize that at the time, in training my main goal was winning the Oceania Championships – which I did in May of last year. In June I competed at the Junior World Championships and I was very surprised when we were contacted on the way home; the International Olympic Committee, IWF and the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) awarded me the Tripartite Invitation to compete in Rio.”
Author’s Note: Tripartite Invitations are awarded to athletes from countries that may be underrepresented in order to enhance participation in the Olympic Games.
How long have you been lifting? How did you get started?
“I have been lifting for 5 years, since I was 15 years old. I previously was a track athlete, running the 100 and 200 [meter events]. My dad is a weightlifting coach and works with the Marshall Islands Olympic Committee. We would have early morning practices and my dad coached other athletes at the time so I joined them. Initially I thought I was too skinny and would not be any good, but then I started lifting and I realized I was stronger than I was and I really enjoyed it.”
Tell me about the Olympic competition. What did you think of your performance?
“I knew it would be tough, but I told myself I had to come to work. I was injured coming out of the Oceania Championships in May, but I trained through it. My CJ [112KG] was a little low, but overall I tied my best total [199KG] so I did OK.”
Did you watch any other sports at the Olympic Games?
“I watched all the A sessions of weightlifting, I also attended the swimming and volleyball competitions.”
One of the Oceania competitors in your category also is a high level CrossFit® athlete (Tia-Clair Toomey of Australia). Have you done CrossFit workouts yourself?
“I actually would like to try CrossFit, but I don’t know how to start. I also am very busy with my weightlifting, and I like to focus on one sport. When I was younger; I would go back and forth with track and weightlifting. It was hard to be good at two sports.”
How did you meet Coach Travis Mash, and how did you end up on his weightlifting team?
“I first met Travis Mash in Georgia at the  Junior World Championships. I knew Mason Groehler and other weightlifters on his team from the 2015 American Open. After the Olympics there were many opportunities for me to train in other countries, we knew that I needed a better environment for a training camp. I had many options, but I have some family in Charlotte and that is close to the team and it worked out well. I now am living with other family members in Kansas City and my parents are in the process of moving me full time to the USA for my education and health as I continue to train.”
What are your favorite hobbies or activities outside of weightlifting?
“I like to relax, read books and watch movies – all kinds.”
What are your goals for 2017 and beyond?
“I want to keep training and improve. I know because I have dual citizenship with Marshall Islands and USA a lot of people ask me if I would lift for USA. USA provides so much hope and opportunity for the Marshall Islands. I was very proud to represent my country at the Olympic Games in Rio, and I thank Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee for their continued belief in me. I would like to compete at the American Open again; it was very fun and a lot bigger than competing back home. My goal is to train hard and it’s a long road to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but I plan to be there.”
Author’s Note: In the past, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has made a stipulation that if an athlete has dual citizenship, they cannot switch their representation without a 2 year inactive period. In December I spoke with USAW CEO Phil Andrews, and he said that there is a chance that the IWF would rescind this rule in the near future. As of today it is still in place. This is the same reason Sasser was ineligible to set Junior American Records at the 2016 American Open. Her individual lifts and overall total would have surpassed the current Junior American Records in the 58KG category, however, since she was ineligible to compete internationally for USAW (though she has American citizenship) she was ineligible to set records.
Who is your biggest competition?
Who is your favorite athlete to watch?
“I do not watch a lot of other athletes during competition, however Mattie Rogers and Jessica Lucero are two of my favorites. I have become friends with them over the last two years.”
Snatch: 95KG (209lb)
Clean & Jerk: 121KG (266lb)
Jerk: *rarely does a jerk on its own*
Back Squat: 140KG (308lb)
Front Squat: 130KG (286lb)
Number of training sessions per week, and how often do you go heavy (90% +)?
“6 sessions per week, once a day Monday through Saturday. Monday and Friday I max out on the lifts, the other days I max out my squat; it is one of my weaknesses.”
What does your diet consist of? (Special foods, nutritional plans, etc.)
“I eat a normal diet; mainly proteins and vegetables.”
Featured image: Viviana Podhaiski / @everyday_lifters