Kennedy: World-ranked lifter might be Chattanooga’s best hope for 2024 Olympics

Contributed Photo by Olivia Reeves / Nineteen-year-old Chattanoogan Olivia Reeves is draped with the American flag after earning a bronze medal at the weightlifting world championships in Bogata, Colombia, in December. Reeves, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee and Chattanooga, is ranked in the top five in the world in her weight class (156 pounds).

This story was updated to correct the spelling of the country of Colombia. 

Most college kids would settle for a trip to Florida for spring break.

Meanwhile, Olivia Reeves, a sophomore at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga majoring in exercise science, has recent passport stamps from Uzbekistan, Greece, Colombia and Peru. By next year, she will have added Argentina, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Such is the life of a top-tier, world-class athlete.

Reeves is one of the young stars of the Team USA national weightlifting team, and the future travel destination she covets most is Paris, home of the 2024 Summer Olympics.

"If the Olympics were happening tomorrow, yes, I would go," said Reeves, who is fresh off earning a bronze medal in her weight class at the world weightlifting championships in Bogata, Columbia, last month.

But, she is quick to add that qualifying for the U.S. Olympics team will require performing well at a series of competitions between now and May 2024, when the U.S. team will be selected. (The Paris Olympics are in August 2024.)

"There's a lot that could happen between now and then," Reeves said in an interview last week at UTC. "I've got to beat some people, and then beat some more people."

Although she competes in a relatively obscure sport, Reeves, a graduate of Notre Dame High School here, might well be the most accomplished athlete in Chattanooga right now. She is ranked in the top 5 in the world in her weight class (156 pounds), and she set American records in both the snatch (242 pounds) and the clean and jerk (304 pounds) last summer. These are the two events that, in combination, constitute Olympic weightlifting.

Reeves, who lives in Hixson, grew up hanging out at her parents' former CrossFit training center here. As a youngster, she trained for CrossFit competitions before deciding the sport wasn't her cup of tea.

"I thought I was going to be a CrossFit athlete, but I was like, "Man, I really hate running," she said. "(But), I was pretty good at anything with a barbell."

She made the switch to weightlifting at age 12. By the time she graduated to senior (adult) weightlifting, she was dominating the juniors age group.

Her coach, Steve Fauer, of Tennessee Speed and Strength (and formerly a strength coach at Vanderbilt and the University of Nebraska), said Reeves' ability to handle the psychological weight of international competition gives her an edge over other lifters.

"What really sets her apart is her absolute love for the sport," Fauer said in an email interview. "Training is fun. Competing is fun. Traveling is fun. She is really enjoying herself, and it shows on game day.

"Travel to the other side of the world, put her in a high-pressure situation, load the bar to a weight that will get her to the Olympics and tell her she only has one chance to make the lift. She won't be able to wipe the smile off her face as she walks out on stage," Fauer said.

Reeves, who works with a sports psychologist, agrees it's her ability to shrug-off pressure that helps her compete.

"I just tell myself, 'I have to make this (one) lift, and after this one, we'll think about the next one," she said. "When I compete, I just tell myself that I'm just just snatching and clean and jerking, the things I do all the time."

On the other hand, she's still a teenager. Before the world championships in December, her training took a dip while she was trying to navigate final exams at UTC, she said. Adding to the pressure, the world championships were in Bogota, a city that is almost 9,000 feet above sea level, which caused her heart to race.

Still, Reeves answered the bell at the world championships and took third place in the clean and jerk. Importantly, the world championships were the first official qualifying competition for the 2024 Olympics.

Fauer, Reeves' coach, said if she continues to improve her technique, she still has room to grow as a lifter. For her part, Reeves' says the 2028 Olympics are also a possibility.

Her physical gifts are unquestioned. She has a 27-inch vertical leap, a measure of athletic explosiveness that puts her in the ballpark of a college male basketball player. And she can squat lift 462 pounds. Remember, she weighs only about 156 pounds, so that's almost three times her body weight.

Asked if she lifts with male friends, Reeves shakes her head "no."

When she shares her back-squat number, she said, they tend to drift away.

The "Life Stories" column publishes on Mondays. To suggest a human interest, story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.