When Wanda Rijo trained at the gyms of the Juan Pablo Duarte Olympic Center to get ready for her international events, no one would dare make any noise to cause the weightlifter to lose her concentration and risk being scolded by her.
The intensity she put into her work led her to win two Pan American golds and three golds in the Central American and Caribbean Games. In the Sydney 2000 Olympics, she finished among the top ten weightlifters in the world in the 75kg division. Her nickname “The Queen of Weightlifting” was well earned.
The athlete from San Pedro de Macorís began practicing weightlifting at 15, when trainer Fausto Gómez discovered her during shot put practice. Wanda’s good flexibility, strength and resilience showed signs of her great potential for success in this discipline.
Fully dedicated to the sport, she trained six hours a day; three hours in the morning on the snatch and the clean and jerk, while also strengthening her legs, shoulders and back. In the afternoon, she dedicated another three hours to complementary exercises for her back, arms and legs.
“I AM GRATEFUL TO MY COUNTRY FOR BELIEVING IN ME”
“Wanda took her time to do many other things such as physical conditioning, jumping to improve her flexibility, running and focusing greatly on her shoulders,” recalls William Ozuna, president of the Dominican Weightlifting Federation.
The results showed just four years after she started practicing the sport. In the Central American and Caribbean Games held in Maracaibo 1998, she became the first Dominican athlete to win 3 gold medals for her country in this event. In addition, she established regional records in the snatch (75), and the clean and jerk (120), with a total of 195kg.
“God was always with me. The sacrifices made were rewarded with medals”, says Rijo.
A year later, when she represented the country in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, she entered the platform in a red-and-white striped leotard, lifting 100kg in the snatch, and 120kg, in the clean and jerk, for a total of 220kg, becoming the first Dominican female athlete in history to win the Pan American gold medal.
“She was a warrior on the platform, and her drive could be seen from miles away. She was practically in all the international levels,” Ozuna recalls. In fact, in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, she finished 8th with a total lift of 215kg.
However, Rijo seemed to be losing her command of the platform, losing her throne as Queen of the Central American and Caribbean Games in San Salvador, winning three silver medals.
Her confidence, threatened by the loss of the Central American crown put Rijo’s reign to the test. Could she continue to reign as she had in the past? The Santo Domingo 2003 Pan American Games was the venue where she would have to show what she was made of. There, she bested Argentine Nora Koppel and Venezuelan Raquel López, taking home the gold right before the eyes of her own country.
“Winning before the Dominican audience was a bonus for me,” explains the medal winner. “I remember crying from joy. It was one of the most important moments in my career as a weightlifter.”
In 2004, she participed in her second Olympic Games in Athens 2004, finishing 10TH with a total lift of 237.5kg, in a competition where Thailand’s Pawina Thongsuk won the gold with 272.5kg.
It was during that time, in her mid-twenties, that Rijo became a born-again Christian. “The first 25 years of my life felt like I was dead. I didn’t know about God or the Bible,” she says.
Rijo majored in accounting at the Pedro Henríquez Ureña National University. She currently works in that field at the Ministry of Sports. She married in 2007, and along with her husband Argelys Rodríguez, forms part of a group of leaders serving in the Evangelical Church. They have three daughters.
Although retired from sports, Wanda feels more than proud of her achievements and having represented her country. “I am grateful to my country for believing in me, supporting me and allowing me to live in the most beautiful place in the world,” she declares. After winning all those medals, she feels she has won some more. “I go on with my three true gold medals: God, my husband and my daughters.”
Rijo’s accomplishments earned her admission to the Hall of Fame of Dominican Sports. From San Pedro de Macorís to the Juan Pablo Duarte Olympic Center. From the Olympic Center to participating in the Central American and Caribbean Games, the Pan American and Olympic Games and now to sports immortality, Wanda Rijo, without a doubt, is a Dominican hero.