Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold is living large and loving it

DALLAS -- Everything about Holley Mangold is oversized.

Her personality. Her laugh. Her ambition.

But the first thing most people notice is her body, which, at 5 feet 9 and 350 pounds, is hard to miss.

"I'm huge," Mangold says with pride, not political correctness. "I love my body. I think it's perfect.

"I don't know what my personality would be like if I wasn't so huge."

She has a pretty good idea what her athletic career would be like, though. And it wouldn't include a trip to the Olympic Games this summer.

In the small Ohio town where she grew up — with an emphasis on the word "grew" — Mangold tried 10 sports, from roller skating and gymnastics to football and swimming, all with some success. But it wasn't until 31/2 years ago, when she turned to weightlifting, that something clicked.

Now she's going to London with the hope of becoming the first U.S. woman to win a medal in weightlifting since 2000, when the sport debuted.

"I have a ton of work to do. But I feel that I can make bronze," she says enthusiastically.

Mangold says everything enthusiastically — much of it with heavy doses of both wit and wisdom. So if this weightlifting thing doesn't work out, stand-up comedy wouldn't be a bad fall-back plan.

"She's a hoot," says Olympic teammate Sarah Robles. "She can be in any circumstance and always find something funny in it."

Like the fact that, for most of the last year, one of the country's top Olympic athletes has lived in the laundry room of the house she shares with three male roommates.

"At least my clothes are always clean," Mangold shrugs.

Or her diet, which is really no diet at all. "I'm a super-heavyweight for a reason," she says. "I don't really like to avoid food. I like to embrace it."

She even makes light of her sport, opening a demonstration of Olympic weightlifting at last week's USOC Media Summit in Dallas by explaining simply, "We pick things up and then put them down."

Sometimes a little too hard. Which is why the windows shattered when Mangold dropped a barbell during a workout in the second-floor gym at Ursuline College, where she studied for two years before dropping out to concentrate on her sport.

"They asked me to leave," she says of the staff of the tiny liberal arts college, one of the nation's oldest all-women's schools.

In addition to breaking windows, Mangold has used her athletic talents to break stereotypes about female athletes.

"Just because you do a more manly sport, where you do something that doesn't seem like the social norm for females, doesn't mean you have to forget all your female stuff that you have," she says. "Hopefully it's paving the way for more women to realize that they don't have to be crazy manly and they don't have to be crazy feminine. That can be a mixture of both."

As Mangold was when she played offensive line for four seasons at Archbishop Alter High in Kettering, Ohio — long, blond hair flowing out the back of her mustard-colored helmet — and also made the homecoming court.

"I did all the normal girlie stuff," says Mangold, who still paints her nails before every competition. "I dated."

If anything, she was guilty of trying to do too much — especially at Ursuline, where she competed in track and swimming, was a triple major in theology, sociology and philosophy and maintained a social schedule that included partying into the early morning, then sleeping into the early afternoon.

That's when Drew Dillon, a fellow weightlifter, pulled her aside and challenged her not to waste her talent. Next he found her a job with a catering company and a place to live so she could stay and train in Columbus, Ohio.

"She definitely has potential to get on that podium," says Dillon, a friend, confidant and advisor who will be accompanying Mangold to London. "In the sport of Olympic weightlifting, anything can happen."

Eighteen months after that intervention Mangold, 22, says only her mother, Therese, has had a bigger impact on her career than Dillon.

"I wouldn't be in the Olympics if it wasn't for him," she says.

And that's given her bragging rights in a family of accomplished athletes. Mangold's older sister, Kelley, runs marathons; her younger sister, Maggey, plays volleyball; and Nick, her only brother, is a four-time Pro Bowl selection and former first-round draft pick who plays center for the New York Jets.

"Has he gotten to a Super Bowl? That is the question. This is the Super Bowl of my sport," taunts Holley, who outweighs her 6-foot-4 brother by 40 pounds but can still do the splits — and, she says, regularly outlift him in the weight room.

That final slight is apparently one Nick Mangold takes seriously because, through a Jets spokesman, he declined repeated requests to talk about his sister the Olympian.

And with less than four years of experience in Olympic-style weightlifting, Holley Mangold has reached that summit earlier than expected. The conventional wisdom says it takes five years to find out whether a weightlifter will be any good and 10 years to determine whether they'll be great.

"So I don't know if I'm good yet," says Mangold, who is training nearly 30 hours a week in an effort to find out. "I'm very excited. I feel like I'm just scratching at the surface of what I can do."

Adds Dillon: "She made it to the Olympics as a good athlete. And she has all the potential in the world to be one of the best in the sport."

To be a medal contender in London, Dillon says Mangold would need to hoist a combined 280 kilos in the two Olympic lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. In the U.S. trials her two-lift total was 255 kilos (about 561 pounds).

"If she focuses and she gets up in that range, she's definitely a contender," insists Dillon, who says Mangold sets aside her happy-go-lucky personality during competitions, drawing instead from what she learned during all those years playing football when she was, she says, "just one of the guys."

"She still is a girl in all senses, everything. And she still has a soft side," Dillon says. "But I think she has a little bit of a tougher skin than most girls. When she's having trouble, she can kind of push it off — which you see in more male athletes — and just focus on the task at hand. I would definitely say that's a benefit for her."

It's a large challenge she'll be facing this summer. But then Mangold was clearly cut out for big things.

"I'm unique," she says with a girlish smile.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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