BEAUFORT, S.C. (WSAV) – One Lowcountry woman is a step away from living out a dream of making it to the Olympics, and she could make history in the process.
Mahassan Hala Fattouh is shy by nature until she gets up on a weightlifting stage. It’s a sport and a challenge she loves.
“The fact I can see my progress,” explains Fattouh. “I lifted 5 pounds more than I did last time.”
Lifting competitively since she was 15, Fattouh won two USA national titles, broke the Florida State records and medaled at the Youth Pan-American Games in Ecuador.
In 2014, she made the choice to use her father’s name, and compete for his home country of Lebanon. She was lifting for a country that had limited resources, and no strong backing in a sport women had not yet participated in on the international stage.
“I lifted for a whole year before ever meeting someone in the Lebanese federation,” Fattouh said.
Part of why she decided to make the change was to prove that the images most western people saw of Lebanon — civil wars and terrorism — were not a true picture of the country itself.
Her goal? To positively represent an area that carries that stigma.
“That’s not Lebanon,” Fattouh said. “Maybe these things happen sometimes, occasionally, but the western media sometimes portrays this as this is the Middle East, and that’s not really the case. It is a whole people and what somebody’s government does is not what the people are.”
“My family lives in Beirut. It is a huge city. Basically like going to New York City,” she painted the picture. “It’s very crowded and aside from some stuff you might see in the news, it’s like every other place. There’s great shopping, great food and gorgeous locations to visit.”
This proud Lebanese woman made her entire country proud in 2015, earning the first IWF Olympic Qualification Points for Lebanon by a woman at the World Championships.
In 2016, the American-born woman even moved to Beirut with her husband for a period of time to live and train there.
She didn’t have the ideal training situation but believed training with respected coach Hajj Souheil Kaissi and training internationally would be valuable — as well as getting to reconnect with her overseas family.
Fattouh decided to leave Beirut a few months later and come back to America. This time, under the tutelage of Ray Jones in Beaufort. Moving to the Lowcountry in Yemassee with her husband and other coach, Ryan. Lifting right next to future US Olympian CJ Cummings.
“She’s talented, but the best thing is that she does not quit,” explained Jones. “She’s always going to work and do what you ask her to do every time she walks into the gym.”
Fattouh says Jones isn’t just teaching her new techniques, but his way of teaching has gotten her stronger and kept her healthy — one of the things that held her back in the past.
“I know personally that people had told her before that maybe you should find another dream,” remembered Jones. “As a young person, someone had told that to her. For her to continue with that dream and goal… it is just special.”
That hard work and drive to succeed paid off. In 2017, she placed top 10 in the World Championships. In 2018, she became the first Lebanese woman ever to medal in an international competition at the Mediterranean Games.
Then, taking the next step, winning the 2019 Arab Games in the 64K weight class.
“To be able to stand on the podium, have the flag, hear the National Anthem, that was definitely a big moment for me,” she said.
It was a moment even bigger, in ways, for the country itself. A woman having success in a typical “man’s sport” in the Middle East brought some observers to tears.
Fattouh has since earned enough points to qualify for an Olympic berth. She is now waiting for her Federation to call to make it official and to send her to Japan as a member of team Lebanon.
“To be this close is insane. I didn’t grow up wanting to go to the Olympics. I didn’t start weightlifting wanting to go to the Olympics. I just started and, oh, it is possible? I could do that? It’s really cool.”
“We are pretty sure we know the answer,” Fattouh smiled. “But until it’s certain, who knows what can happen.”
She said one of her first calls would be to her parents, who have been a big part of her support system.
“Regardless of what happens, it’s not changing what I do today,” Fattouh said. “I am still going to go home and eat the dinner I have prepared, and Ray still will expect me to do that snatch whether the answer was no or yes.”
“For her and her husband Ryan. For all the time and all the years they’ve put in to do it,” said Jones. “For me to be a small part of it, it just gives me joy. To know that someone who has worked so hard, and has done all the right things you ask them to do, that it comes back.”
“To be able to carry the flag, wear the colors and be with other athletes doing the same thing I am doing would definitely be a big moment,” Fattouh said proudly. “And then to be on stage, wear a warm-up that has the Lebanese colors and flag on it, have my name on there that has my name next to it. They are all things that make me very proud.”
She hopes to walk with a team of athletes from Lebanon. Even she expects there to be only a few, including at least two women.
And when you ask about the possibility of a medal…
“I’m not counting on it,” Fattouh said. “Maybe if everyone has a horrible day and I have a great day, it is possible.”
She echoes the sentiment of Coach Ray, who doesn’t push athletes to set records during training, instead works hard and sees what happens at the competition itself.
But that doesn’t temper Fattouh’s excitement just for a chance to be there with the best in the world.
“Because I’ve never been to an Olympics, everything is a personal best,” Fattouh laughed. “Weigh-in: Personal best. Warm-up: Personal best. … Because I’ve never been there.”
“I tell her to go there and do your very, very best,” said Jones. “And try to break your personal record. If you can do that, you don’t know what else is going to happen with other things.”
At 31, Fattouh is older for a weightlifter but feels like she is stronger than ever before and is not ready to stop yet. Tokyo is the next stop. After that, who knows? Paris in 2024?
But first, it’s one at a time.
“It’s the Olympics. It’s an amazing thing. It doesn’t matter what I do when I was there. Do
bigger things the next time,” she smiled.