Grace and speed may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of weightlifting.

Outside the sport, few people realize how much swiftness and agility matters, even for the plus-sized superheavyweights as they perform the two Olympic lifts — the snatch and the clean and jerk.

"If the snatch takes more than a second or two, something's gone wrong," said Holley Mangold, a 350-pound American strongwoman who will compete in the women's superheavyweight category.

Mangold, whose older brother Nick plays for the NFL's New York Jets, added: "It's a very athletic movement that I explain as a controlled explosion."

Weightlifting is a real crowd pleaser, despite being one of the lesser known sports on the Olympic program.

It's much more than raw muscle power and athletic ability. There is drama, tension and a lot more strategy than you might expect.

Just check out the curious ways in which lifters get themselves pumped up. Some close their eyes in quiet meditation. Others cry out for help from God.

Mangold, who used to play high school football in Ohio with the boys, has her own ritual: doing a cartwheel before each competition.

"It's a superstition kind of thing," she told The Associated Press. "It's part of my routine."

Weightlifters get three attempts in each of the two types of lift. In the snatch, the bar is lifted overhead in one continuous motion. The clean and jerk is performed in two moves: the lifter first pulls the bar to shoulder height while in a squat, then rises and pushes it overhead.

The elbows need to lock for a successful lift. The total score combines the weights lifted in the best snatch and the best clean and jerk.

You only get six lifts, so the weights you pick are crucial. Start too low and the medals could be out of reach. Start too high and you may crash out without a result.

Imagine one of your competitors is coming in at 150 kilograms so you decide to start at 151. But wait, the other guy just changed to 152. Do you go up to 153, your personal record? Or play it safe and stick to 151, hoping he'll bomb out at 152? Often, your coach will decide for you.

Svetlana Tsarukaeva of Russia lost this game of chicken in a big way four years ago. Among the medal favorites in the Beijing Olympics, the former arm wrestler put too much weight on the bar for her first lift. After failing all attempts, she was so devastated she missed the exit when she left the platform and walked straight into a wall.

"It was very hard. But what doesn't kill us strengthens us," she told World Weightlifting, the official quarterly magazine of the International Weightlifting Federation.

Tsarukaeva bounced back and heads to the London Olympics as the 63-kilogram favorite after becoming world champion last year.

Russia has an impressive lineup and should challenge the Chinese in the heavy divisions. China, which won one silver and eight gold medals in Beijing, still dominates the lower weight categories. Kazakhstan has a few gold medal contenders like Ilya Ilin, defending Olympic champion in the men's 94-kilogram category, and double world champion Zulfiya Chinshanlo in the women's 53-kilogram class.

There are eight weight categories for men and seven for women. Interest is the highest in the superheavyweight division, where you will find the thick-necked hulks that people typically associate with weightlifting.

Competitors in the lower weight categories have a completely different build. Slim, even petite, they look like gymnasts, but with bigger thighs.

If Mangold or fellow American Sarah Robles betters her personal record in London, she could come within reach of the bronze medal. But the quest for gold and the unofficial title of world's strongest woman likely will be a showdown between Zhou Lulu of China and Tatiana Kashirina of Russia.

Zhou established a world-record total of 328 kilograms (723 pounds) when she became world champion last year. Kashirina equaled that total this year at the European Championships.

Robles — the top-ranked U.S. lifter — set a personal best of 258 kilograms (569 pounds) in the Olympic trials.

Among the men's superheavyweights, no one is expected to threaten Iranian giant Behdad Salimikordasiabi, world champion the past two years and the snatch world record holder.

Returning from injury, defending Olympic champion Matthias Steiner of Germany will be hard-pressed to get the bronze this time.

As always, weightlifting is struggling to contain its dark side — doping. Some would-be medal candidates have been barred from competing in London after failing drug tests, including former Olympic, world and European champion Taylan Nurcan of Turkey, Ukrainian superheavyweight Olha Korobka and China's Olympic champion Liao Hui.

"The IWF is doing its utmost to make sure that weightlifters in London lift clean," federation president Tamas Ajan told the AP in an email. "The rest is up to the athletes themselves."


Follow Karl Ritter on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/karl_ritter


Medal projections:


56 kg

Gold: Wu Jingbao, China

Silver: Tran Le Quoc Toan, Vietnam

Bronze: Valentin Hristov, Azerbaijan

62 kg

Gold: Zhang Jie, China

Silver: Kim Un-Guk, North Korea

Bronze: Oscar Figueroa, Colombia

69 kg

Gold: Tang Deshang, China

Silver: Oleg Chen, Russia

Bronze: Sajad Behrouzi, Iran

77 kg

Gold: Lu Haoije, China

Silver: Sa Jae-hyouk, South Korea

Bronze: Tigran Gevorg Martirosyan, Armenia

85 kg

Gold: Kianoush Rostami, Iran

Silver: Adrian Zielinski, Poland

Bronze: Aleksey Yufkin, Russia

94 kg

Gold: Ilya Ilin, Kazakhstan

Silver: Artem Ivanov, Ukraine

Bronze: Anatoli Ciricu, Moldova

105 kg

Gold: Khadzihmurat Akkaev, Russia

Silver: Marcin Dolega, Poland

Bronze: Andrei Aramnau, Belarus

Plus-105 kg

Gold: Behdad Salimikordasiabi, Iran

Silver: Sajjad Anoushiravani, Iran

Bronze: Ruslan Albegov, Russia


48 kg

Gold: Tian Yuan, China

Silver: Panida Khamsri, Thailand

Bronze: Marzena Karpinska, Poland

53 kg

Gold: Zulfiya Chinshanlo, Kazakhstan

Silver: Li Yingyi, China

Bronze: Hsu Shu-Ching, Taiwan

58 kg

Gold: Li Xueying, China

Silver: Natassia Novikava, Belarus

Bronze: Pimsiri Sirikaew, Thailand

63 kg

Gold: Svetlana Tsarukaeva, Russia

Silver: Maiya Maneza, Kazakhstan

Bronze: Ouyang Xiaofang, China

69 kg

Gold: Oxana Slivenko, Russia

Silver: Xiang Yanmei, China

Bronze: Huang Shih-hsu, Taiwan

75 kg

Gold: Nadezda Evstyukhina, Russia

Silver: Svetlana Podobedova, Kazakhstan

Bronze: Lidia Valentin, Spain

Plus-75 kg

Gold: Zhou Lulu, China

Silver: Tatiana Kashirina, Russia

Bronze: Jang Mi-Ran, South Korea