Thrower Turned Weightlifter Mary Theisen-Lappen Must Lift Big, Or Stay Home

by Lynn Rutherford

Mary Theisen-Lappen competes during the women's 87 kg. competition at the 2023 IWF World Championships in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Calixto N. Llanes/IWF)

Train full-time, coach on the side and then retire from competition and start a full-time coaching career. That’s the path many elite athletes follow.

U.S. weightlifter Mary Theisen-Lappen is taking that path, but she’s doing it backwards.

“It’s definitely different, and it’s definitely backwards,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, most people don’t quit their job when they’re 30 years old and decide to train full time.”

That wasn’t what Theisen-Lappen, who turns 33 in November, planned to do, either. Growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, she competed in multiple track and field disciplines and eventually became a star thrower, earning All-America honors in shot put at weight throw for Indiana State University. Following her senior season, she finished ninth in the shot put at the 2014 U.S. championships.

Theisen-Lappen intended to continue throwing the shot put after that, but a break from the sport brought a change of plans.

“I took the summer off after I graduated and realized that, with the knowledge I had at that time, I thought I had thrown as far as I could,” she said. “I decided to let my body heal from 12 years of track, and channel that passion into coaching.”

By the 2015-16 athletic season, Theisen-Lappen was the primary throws coach for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, a Division III program. In 2018, she started weightlifting. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was furloughed for basically five months, and I got super strong, because I was training full time, not sort of squeezing it in when I could,” she said. “I put training as number one. So I coached one more year, and then decided to go all in with weightlifting.”

With her husband Casey’s support, Theisen-Lappen resigned her position, effective October 2021. These days, she lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and coaches weightlifting online to 20 or so athletes.

Earlier this month, her devotion paid big dividends: In her world weightlifting championships debut, “Coach Mary” won the silver medal for total weight at +87 kg. in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She also claimed a silver medal in the clean & jerk (in the Olympics medals are only awarded for total weight).

Theisen-Lappen didn’t expect to be nervous in Riyadh, but competing against women she had spent the last five or six years watching tested her mettle. However, bigger than the setting was the stakes: The world championships served as a mandatory qualifying event for the Olympic Games Paris 2024, and she’s locked in a tight battle for a spot on the team.

“I don’t think being at worlds was the main reason I was so nervous,” she said. “You have to add in the fact that it’s an Olympic qualifier, and I have a three-time Olympian as the person I’m trying to beat off the team.”

Mary Theisen-Lappen (L) poses on the podium after the women's 87 kg. competition at the 2023 IWF World Championships in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by USA Weightlifting)

Here’s where Theisen-Lappen’s Cinderella story gets sticky. Team USA can bring just six weightlifters to Paris, three women and three men, and only one per weight class. In the women’s +87 kg. category, the choice will very likely come down to Theisen-Lappen, or two-time reigning Olympic bronze medalist Sarah Robles, who placed fifth in Riyadh.

“(Robles) is beyond talented, she’s a veteran in our sport, and she’ll go down as one of the best female weightlifters the U.S. has ever had,” Theisen-Lappen said. “And we’re good buddies and whatnot, but it still doesn’t make it any less nerve-wracking when I have to try and beat her.”

The two athletes are pushing each other to new heights, and because of that, it may be tougher to make the U.S. squad than to win a medal in Paris. Whoever has lifted the most weight in a qualifying competition will be named to the team. The score is calculated by combining the highest successful lifts in the snatch and the clean & jerk.

“(Robles) has done a 282 kilo total, and I’ve done a 277 — so, that’s 5 kilos (11 pounds),” Theisen-Lappen said. “The goal is always to constantly beat that person’s total, because whoever has the best total, that’s the person who will be chosen.”

“So the medal at worlds is cool, and I’m proud of myself for being able to show up on the day,” she added. “But I didn’t beat Sarah’s (previous) total.”

The next qualifier will be the IWF Grand Prix II set for Dec. 4-14 in Doha, Qatar, and that’s followed by the Pan American Championships in February. An IWF World Cup set for next April in Phuket, Thailand, is the “go big or go home” finale, Theisen Lappen said.

“I think everybody will be taking big jumps, big openers and just basically do or die,” she said. “And we’ll know, probably at the end of April, who makes the team officially.”

In the meantime, Theisen-Lappen’s next event is the Pan American Games set for Oct. 20-Nov. 5 in Santiago, Chile. Though Santiago is not an Olympic qualifier, the athlete and her coach, Wil Fleming, think it offers valuable experience.

“I didn’t lift as a junior; I was well into senior before I ever started lifting,” she said. “Any bit of international experience — especially after how I felt on that stage at worlds — is going to be helpful for me. So, I’m going to do that meet just for practice, to feel those nerves out on a big stage.”

In the run-up to the all-important Doha and Santiago events, Theisen-Lappen and Fleming want to polish her clean & jerk technique; in two recent two meets, the “jerk” portion of the lift — raising the barbell to a stationary position above the head — has received red lights from judges.

“Both times, (a clean lift) would have put me ahead of (Robles),” she said. “I had a little bit of elbow movement, which you can’t have. So, I’ve been working on kind of cleaning that up, to make sure that if and when I have that opportunity, I don’t miss my jerk.”

Whatever happens — whether she competes at the Paris Games, or not — Theisen-Lappen may continue her unlikely journey in weightlifting beyond 2024.

“If you had asked me a year ago, I probably would have said, if I made the team, (Olympics) would be my last meet,” she said. “But if I’m still getting better, I probably don’t think I’ll be done.”