Aiming for Gold
February 20th, 2018 by Pam Blair

During the high school weightlifting offseason, Emma Respress trains with Joe Roe, above, and competes in USA Weightlifting events. The saying on his shirt, “Just the Beginning,” is what they think of Emma’s success thus far.

The teenage weightlifter nicknamed Rocket dreams of Olympic competition

At 4 feet 10 inches tall and about 100 pounds, 14-year-old Emma Respress of Fort Meade is far from an imposing figure. But don’t underestimate the power packed in her petite frame—or the competitive fire that burns inside of her.

“People underestimate how strong I am,” the high school freshman says.

Emma’s strength is both physical and mental. Since age 12, she has competed in weightlifting at the high school level.

She made her first trip to state February 2, 2018, and has her sights set on a much bigger stage: the Olympics.

Joe Roe, who coaches Emma during the high school offseason, gave her the nickname Rocket after the raccoon character in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies: small, fierce and fearless.
Emma says her Olympic dream began shortly after she started lifting.

“My parents are into CrossFit, and that has a lot to do with weightlifting,” says Emma, who accompanied them to the gym. “I thought I should do it, too, to be with them. Since I’m not big into cardio, I picked out what I liked.”

Emma settled on weightlifting. She perfected her technique using an almost-weightless PVC pipe. Once she mastered the form, she progressed to a 15-pound trainer bar.

“She was built for this sport,” says Joe. “The sky is the limit. She is only bound by how far she wants to take this. Her strength has just begun to develop, so now the fun begins.

“She will be the dominating lifter in her weight class from here on out in Florida. If she wants to be in the Olympics, it’s all up to her. She has the ability.”

Although only two years into the sport, Emma has already been successful. Last summer, she was 19th in her age and weight division at the USA Weightlifting National Youth Championship, which bills itself as “Where Olympic Journeys Begin.”

She has qualified for a return trip to nationals this summer in Michigan.

Emma’s personal bests are 125 pounds in the clean and jerk, 110 pounds in the bench press and 85 pounds in the snatch.

During her just-concluded high school season, Emma dominated the 110-pound class, losing only once—to a senior from Auburndale. She dropped 3 or 4 pounds to make the 101 division, winning district and regionals to earn a state berth. She finished seventh there, just off the medal stand. Her total lift of 215 pounds—115 in clean and jerk and 100 in bench, both on her first attempts—tied for sixth, but the tiebreaker was a post-lift weigh-out. The other girl weighed 95.8 pounds. Emma was an even 100.

“I want to win next year,” Emma says. “I want to be a three-time state champion.”

High school coach Jon Spradlin says Emma’s personality makes her special.

“She’s very even keeled and mature for a freshman,” he says. “If Emma drops a lift, she just smiles and walks away with no worries, while I’m stressed to the max.”

Her favorite lift is the clean and jerk.

“I don’t like the bench press at all,” she says. “The bench press is more upper body. Most of my strength is in my legs.”

That lower-body strength comes in handy for Emma’s competitive dancing.

“I dance everywhere I go,” she says.

Emma also is involved in chorus, cheerleading and FFA. She says she loves ’80s music, and should have been born then.

What would she tell people who say girls should not be weightlifters?

“That’s like saying guys shouldn’t breathe,” she says. “It makes no sense.”

For Emma, weightlifting fuels her competitiveness in a way nothing else does.

“I like the rush,” she says. “Weightlifting is not like a team sport. When you are by yourself, all the pressure is all on you—and I kind of like that.”