Roselle teen raises the bar in weightlifting
Inside a Schaumburg gym, Abby Raymond has an audience and doesn't seem to notice.
She's lifting a barbell with about 95 pounds of weight over her 4-foot, 10-inch frame. One observer, amazed, shakes his head.
Abby pays no attention. She's lifted far heavier, and she's not here for affirmation. Her own competitive drive provides enough.
"There can't be a doubt in your mind that you're going to do it," she said.
And so the 13-year-old tends to keep to herself when she trains after school. Her coach, Roger Nielsen, led U.S. weightlifting teams to the Olympics and thinks Abby has a good chance to reach the pinnacle of the sport. The Roselle Middle School student already holds three American records for her age group.
But Abby can celebrate those milestones for only so long. She knows she faces a long road and must refocus for the next competition: the Mid-American Weightlifting Championship later this month in Schaumburg.
Abby long has pushed the boundaries of her strength. At 3 years old, she started gymnastics and devoted about seven years to the sport she misses every so often.
"I've just got like that feeling in my gut telling me this is for me," Abby said.
And while she was sometimes reluctant to put in the work for gymnastics -- at one point spending 25 hours a week at the gym during summer vacation -- Abby has never complained to her parents about her weightlifting regimen.
"Never said, 'Aw, do I have to go today, Dad?'" Todd Raymond said.
That doesn't mean she hasn't made sacrifices. Weightlifting is a solitary sport -- and even more so for a teen who misses sleepovers and whose seventh-grade classmates don't really understand why she has to train four days a week and eat healthy to stay in her 53-kilogram (just under 117 pounds) weight class.
"None of her friends have an interest or have any desires or know anything about what she does," her dad said. "I think there's a part of her that wishes they did. But I think the strength portion of it and being around adults has given her a lot of confidence."
Abby began training around adults shortly after the Roselle family watched an episode of NBC's "American Ninja Warrior" about two years ago. Abby was captivated by Kacy Catanzaro, the first woman to complete the show's city finals obstacle course and a former gymnast who stayed in shape with CrossFit.
Abby tried the workout in a Roselle gym and bonded with a coach who would later move to Arizona and refer her to Nielsen.
In the past year, Nielsen has helped Abby develop her technical form in the two Olympic-style lifts: the snatch and the clean-and-jerk.
"You never stop perfecting the technique because there's no such thing as a perfect lift," Abby said. "There's something that you can fix every single time."
While perfection might be elusive, Abby isn't intimidated by lifters twice her age at CrossFit Rise in Schaumburg, where she trains and will compete on the first day of the Mid-American championship Oct. 22. They, in turn, respect the girl with braces who loves watching movies with her friends.
"They all accept her because she's here every day, four days a week, does just like they do," her dad said. "She's one of them."
That discipline helps explain the success Abby has achieved in relatively short order. She placed first among girls 13 and younger in the 48-kilogram (just under 106 pounds) weight class in June at the National Youth Championships in Austin, Texas, where she also broke two American records.
The wunderkind made history again about a month later with a third record in her age group -- this time in the 53-kilogram class -- at a competition hosted by USA Weightlifting. The event capped an eight-day training camp for Abby and other top prospects invited to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
"She's doing stuff that no other kid has done at this body weight," Nielsen said.
Her dad, dean of students and the former head wrestling coach at Lake Park High School, reminds her not to take too much satisfaction out of titles. And Nielsen keeps a low-key presence in the gym. Abby has to earn his compliments.
"It's fast and furious along the way sometimes, but you get one thing out of the way and you start training and planning for the next event," Nielsen said.
He fully expects Abby to hit the qualifying total she needs to punch a ticket to USA Weightlifting's National Championships in May in Lombard. She would still be 13 years old and one of the youngest to qualify.
Ask Abby about her future, and she doesn't hesitate: She's determined to make the Olympics.
Ask Nielsen, head coach of the U.S. men's weightlifting team at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, and he thinks Tokyo 2020 might be a long shot. But making the 2024 Olympics is "definitely possible" for Abby.
"Of all the kids I've worked with, she's probably got as much as drive as anybody," said Nielsen, who also coached the 1992 Barcelona team.
Her talent wasn't immediately obvious, but a month or so into their training together, Nielsen recognized "she's got all the pieces."
Leg strength and flexibility from gymnastics. A tough attitude. Support from family.
"It's what you look for as a coach," he said. "She's got it all."