Holley Mangold’s worth her weight in nerve

Sally Jenkins
Columnist August 5, 2012

You could fit a half-dozen Lolo Joneses into Holley Mangold’s singlet, maybe more. But that’s no way to measure her. The way to measure her is by how much she put up with to become an Olympian, from ripped tendons to the zipper that busted on her USA uniform shortly before she took the stage in the women’s superheavyweight weightlifting competition.

“If they wanted me to go out there in a bathing suit, I would,” she said.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Still another way to measure her is by the decibels that come out of your throat as you watch her try to lift nearly 300 pounds over her head, and hold it there. It starts down in the larynx and builds until it sounds like this: “Ghhhaaaaahhhhhhh!”

Mangold didn’t win a medal at the London Games; she finished 10th. Which made her not one pound less interesting. The 22-year-old fought through a torn wrist tendon and several tons of pressure in her Olympic debut, and proved the point she came here to make: “Athletes can come in my size,” she said.

Here’s the thing about what she did: It didn’t take just ore-like strength. It took nerve. A whole lot of nerve for a 330-pound young woman to stand on a platform under a harsh-bright spotlight, amid psycho-techno music that pulsed and then suddenly dropped into the doom-like notes of a game show suspense theme. Then she had to hoist the plate-laden barbell first to her knees, then to her chest, then above her shoulders, trembling the whole time like a building about to collapse in an earthquake.

Amid the concentrated silence, you could practically see her heartbeat in her neck. The audience’s own knee ligaments screamed in sympathy — medial collaterals fraying like hemp rope.

“It hurt a lot,” she said afterward. “I have a raging headache.”

By the end of the competition, Nick Mangold felt sure he didn’t want to get in a clean-and-jerk contest with his younger sister. He was pretty certain his disks would look like shredded tires if he tried. The New York Jets center sat in a cluster of about 15 family members and watched, fairly agape, as his sibling lifted 105 kilograms in the snatch, and then another 135 in the clean and jerk — a combined 529 pounds of weight, despite the heavy bandage on her right wrist.

“Yeah, I don’t think I would have done that,” he said. “I think I would have passed.”

Nick Mangold had been reluctant to leave the Jets’ training camp for an Olympic jaunt, but changed his mind two days ago at the urging of Coach Rex Ryan: “He told me, ‘It’s family,’ ” Mangold said.

Asked who is stronger, him or his sister, Mangold laughed. “There are conflicting reports,” he said. “Of course I’m going to say I’m stronger, but I will never actually do the lift, because I feel as though my superiors would be pretty angry if I blew out my back.”

When Holley first took up the event, “I didn’t really know what to make of it,” Nick said. But acceptance came quickly and he says, “She has the world in front of her.”

The Mangolds are used to this sort of thing from Holley. She has been a boundary-crasher since she played on the offensive line in high school and became the first girl in Ohio history to play for a state championship.

“She had already played football so anything after that was, ‘Oh, okay,’ ” said her mother, Therese.

In a sport in which experience counts heavily — for all of the guttural screaming, the techniques for lifting and clearing are fairly technical — Mangold is a neophyte. She found her calling as a weightlifter only when she started training for the shot put at Ursuline College a couple of years ago, and initially set her sights on the 2016 Olympics. But she upped her loads by more than 70 pounds in the space of a year to become a surprise qualifier for the U.S. team.

Mangold’s goal is not just an Olympic medal; she wants a more sweeping victory than that. To her, a weightlifting platform is a stage to broaden the acceptable range of female athleticism, and she comes to it armed with an appealing lack of self-consciousness, and a smart, funny mouth with which she likes to make cracks about “the tiny girls.” She may lift very heavy objects, but she has a light humor with which she challenges preemptive assessments of body types.

“I think I’m feminine,” she said. “I don’t know what the singlet makes me look like. I probably look pretty goofy. But nobody looks good in a singlet, not even the tiny girls.”

The only thing she was self-conscious about during the competition was her epidermis-tight unitard — and only after she felt rip in warmups. She was afraid something else would go during the competition.

“I was afraid it was going to rip in the crotch or something,” she said. “That’s embarrassing.”

Mangold’s inexperience and bad wrist, along with an assortment of other injuries such as damaged knee cartilage and a creaky labrum that are the toll of the event, prevented her from contending for a medal. But the consensus is that she has champion potential next time around.

The current standard is China’s Zhou Lulu who claimed the gold medal and title of world’s strongest woman by lifting a record total of 333 kilograms, which for those of you at home is 734.1 pounds in American money.

As Mangold watched Zhou, she thought, “‘Holy cow, that’s a lot of weight.’ ” But then another thought replaced it: “One day I’ll beat you.”

For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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