At 4 feet 11 inches, Alyssa Ritchey’s intimidation factor is low.
She walks out onto the platform and grips the loaded barbell, head down as she shifts her weight and feels the knurling in her hands. Back and forth she rocks, settling in, until her whole body goes rigid and she raises her eyes forward to begin.
In the seconds that follow, you forget how small Ritchey is and are captivated instead by her power. By the time she locks out the jerk overhead and gets the OK, the trance is over. She leaps into the air in excitement as the loaded barbell drops below her.
You start to add up the plates on the floor. The lift is 226 pounds, an impressive number for a female weightlifter. Then you remember that Ritchey weighs in at 112 lb. She’s just the fifth United States female to clean and jerk double body weight and now she’s added on two kilograms.
Ritchey dropped 15.5 lb. in 10 weeks to become the top seed as a 48 kg. (105 lb.) lifter. She also works full-time and is a mere eight months into full-time weightlifting.
“If she goes and performs her best [at USA Weightlifting’s National Championships] she’ll be so far ahead of anyone,” Ritchey’s coach, Max Aita said of the mid-May meet. “No one will be able to come back and catch up to her currently.”
How’s that for intimidation?
Weekdays start at 5 a.m. for Ritchey, who has one training session five days a week starting at 7:30. She’s out by 9:30 to shower, eat and pack food for the rest of the day, with work at a Colorado hospital lasting until 8 p.m.
This schedule is a breath of fresh of air compared to her competitive CrossFit days, when Ritchey would squeeze in two training sessions before 3 p.m. Everything had to be perfect to get it all in: train, school, train, work. There’s no room for anything else when you’re spending upwards of six hours a day in the gym. Including recovery.
“My body was just crumbling. I was actually going backwards [in progress],” Ritchey said of her 2016 CrossFit season. “My numbers were going down, I was always coming home in a bad mood, exhausted, and it would be like 12 p.m. I did Regionals and I hated it. I went in there with the worst attitude.”
It showed, as an overtrained Ritchey placed 19th, her worst finish in four Regionals. All of that sacrifice, training, mental and physical exhaustion for nothing. It was heart-breaking.
“It’s just too much on people’s bodies,” she said of the demands of a Games hopeful. “You train at this high volume and high intensity all the time and, unless you’re a big girl, you might have to take some ‘roids to get past it. It’s getting to the point where it’s getting absolutely ridiculous. I know people realize it. I’ve talked to a Games athletes who realized it.”
Ritchey is not a CrossFit hater, she wants to make that clear. She still does some CrossFit workouts a few days a week, to keep her conditioning up, and actually qualified out of this year’s CrossFit Open for Regionals again.
“My best friend is pretty shocked, she’s like ‘You are spending less time in the gym and getting stronger. That’s how my body responds, it responds better to a lot of rest versus high-volume training,” Ritchey said.
“I wish I could be a voice for people that don’t get it. It’s too much sometimes, and I don’t think people realize it until they get injured.”
Ritchey was done competing; planning to take a year off and enjoy training and life again. And then Juggernaut founder Chad Wesley Smith had an idea.
“One mistake and you’re screwed.”
Ritchey would repeat that to herself this past fall when things got tough. The hardest part about switching to weightlifting was dropping nearly 10 percent of her bodyweight, but she had told Smith and Aita she was all in. And Ritchey had never been one to back down from a challenge.
“She had loved to eat Oreos and had asked about diets in the past, but wasn’t that committed,” Renaissance Periodization founder Nick Shaw said of Ritchey, who had just over two months to lose the weight for December’s American Open.
“It was a really, really hard diet. I told her, ‘This is something that is outside the normal. To be that size you can’t eat a lot of food and it sucks. The tradeoff is you’re going to be the best 48 kg lifter in the U.S.’”
Ritchey didn’t even get a Thanksgiving.
Instead, she volunteered to work that day so she could eat her turkey burger and veggies in the corner.
Working off the RP diet templates for cutting, with some interaction with Shaw, Ritchey’s diet resembled more of a physique competitor 3-4 weeks out. When that wasn’t enough, Ritchey would cut out meals once in a while when her progress stalled.
“That’s a big hurdle to cross, losing that much weight and still being able to train is really hard,” Aita said. “It more speaks to her desire and her ability to withstand the discomfort of losing tons of weight and still having to perform. She’s very dedicated. There’s never a question as to whether she’s doing everything possible.”
At the AO, Ritchey weighed in at 47.94 kg, taking home a gold and two silver medals and and totaling 170 kg.
“It was basically like one cheat and you’re ruined,” said Ritchey, who is hoping to sit around 50 kg in between meets.
“It was hard as crap. It sucked. But it was worth it.”***
Ritchey was getting out of her Uber at a recent meet in Reno when her driver asked what she was in town for.
“She was like, ‘but you’re so tiny!,’” Ritchey said when she told the woman she was a competitive weightlifter. “I get that a lot.”
She also gets a lot of messages on Instagram from other small women who look to someone as strong as Ritchey for inspiration. The face of weightlifting is changing, female are turning out in record numbers, and the days of people equating competitive lifters to just these big burly athletes is finally starting to fade.
“I don’t see size as something that holds someone back or as a hurdle. It’s always been a part of my life and it’s something I’ve gotten used to,” said Ritchey, who snatches 175 lb. “I don’t see me as small, I see me as strong and able to do anything.”
“My mindset was always super strong. I never let those thoughts of ‘Oh, I’m a 110-lb. girl I can’t lift that bar!’ hold me back from what my true potential is.”
What’s next for Ritchey ? How strong can she be?
No one quite knows what the ceiling is. Since working remotely with Aita, gaining leg strength has been a priority and Ritchey can now squat 290 lb.
The next summer Olympics are years away, but they aren’t out of the realm of possibility. For now, Ritchey’s goal is to establish herself on the international front and help grow USA weightlifting.
“I knew I was good at [lifting]. But I realistically never thought I’d fall in love with it as much as I have. I didn’t think it would be something I could do full time and [have a] life,” Ritchey said. “
“Now, I’m the best 48 in the country in five months, I make money [from weightlifting] every month. I’ve picked up more sponsors. My diet is good, I don’t wake up sick with a stomach ache. RP has helped me so much. So much has changed. [Weightlifting] has changed my life.”
All videos and photos courtesy of Alyssa Ritchey.