SCARBOROUGH — Emily McNally of Scarborough took up serious weightlifting a little more than a year ago, but she already is among the rising stars in the nation – with dreams of making the Olympics.

At 5-foot-2½ and 135 pounds, McNally can easily hoist more than her body weight above her head with a calm demeanor and athletic precision.

She’s also a 16-year-old. So when a photographer crouched in front of her last week as she began to grip a barbell during a warm-up, McNally burst into an uncontrollable giggle fit.

“This is not a normal workout,” she said.

In front of a much larger audience a few weeks earlier, McNally was far more composed. She finished third among 20 competitors in the 63-kilogram weight class for 16- and 17-year-old girls at the USA Weightlifting National Youth Championships, an Olympic-style competition held June 23-26 in Austin, Texas.

McNally set three New England records at the event with a snatch of 69 kilograms (152 pounds) and a clean-and-jerk of 88 kilograms (194 pounds), giving her a total of 157 kilograms (346 pounds).

“The 2020 Olympics is what I’m shooting for,” she said.

In addition to her bronze medal for total weight, McNally won the silver in the clean-and-jerk. She was sixth in the snatch after missing her first attempt. Lifters get three attempts in both the snatch and clean-and-jerk with the intention of adding weight with each lift.

“For so many lifters, if they miss the first lift that messes them up, and they start crying and get nervous. For me it was just, ‘You still have two lifts left, you need to breathe, you need to stay calm,’ ” McNally said. “And then I did that.”

She improved her total weight by 37 kilograms from her eighth-place finish at the 2015 National Youth Championships and is now ranked 27th among all female youth lifters – regardless of age or class – in the country.

McNally credits her rapid improvement to training the past 10 months with Ivan Rojas, a respected coach who lives in Eliot and has worked with elite lifters from many countries.

“She’s top five in the country in her age class and she’s going to improve a lot more,” Rojas said. “She needs to work a lot. She needs more time on the platform, more experience.”

Rojas’ daughter Gwendolyn competed in the 13-and-under 58-kilogram class. She was the only other Mainer among the 331 girls competing at the youth nationals. No boy from Maine attended.

Ivan Rojas said McNally’s improvement and her lifts are “promising,” but her potential as a youth lifter is a total weight of 185 kilograms.

“I could push her. I could achieve those numbers next week, but the goal with her is to be at her best in 2019, 2020,” Rojas said.

Until seventh grade, Emily McNally's focus was on basketball. But after suffering a pair of concussions in one day and spending more than a year in recovery, she took up weightlifting.

Until seventh grade, Emily McNally’s focus was on basketball. But after suffering a pair of concussions in one day and spending more than a year in recovery, she took up weightlifting. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

TWO CONCUSSIONS, LONG RECOVERY

Until seventh grade, McNally’s focus was on basketball. She played four seasons for the Maine Firecrackers, a competitive girls’ club that has had several alumni earn NCAA Division I and II scholarships.

“Absolutely I remember her,” said Don Briggs, co-founder of the Firecrackers and a Scarborough resident. “At that time the middle school team she was on was one of our strongest programs. Whatever it was going to be for her – basketball, field hockey, weightlifting – she’s just mentally driven to be good. Whatever that commitment was, she was going to do it.”

“Her nickname was ‘Nails,’ ” said her mother, Christie-Lee McNally. “Whenever there was a jump ball, there was no doubt that Emily was going to get it because she was hard as nails.”

At a basketball tournament, Emily McNally suffered what she now knows were two concussions in a three-hour span. The first concussion was undiagnosed and McNally finished the game.

“She bounced right back up. She seemed fine,” her mother said. “They didn’t even take her out of the game. … And then in the second game she collided again, and this time it was head-to-head.”

Shortly after reaching the bench, she vomited and was quickly carried to the car and rushed to the nearest hospital.

What followed was more than a year of extreme symptoms. McNally did not attend school, spending her days in her darkened room. The recovery process included months of vestibular and speech rehabilitation to improve fine motor skills, vision, coordination and vocabulary recall. McNally still suffers from migraine headaches and has difficulty reading, especially on a computer screen.

She will be entering her third year as a student at Maine Connections Academy, a public virtual school for grades 7-12. The flexible schedule allows her to take needed breaks and work at her own pace.

Sports were another matter.

“The doctors said she could play golf or singles tennis, and that really wasn’t going to work,” Christie-Lee McNally said.

Instead, Emily followed her mother into the gym and began doing CrossFit training. A combination of strength and endurance conditioning, CrossFit also has competitions. At a CrossFit competition, with little training and less technique, Emily McNally clean-and-jerked 155 pounds (about 70.5 kilos).

Shortly after that event, the McNallys were contacted by USA Weightlifting.

“The next weekend we were in Albany, New York, at a weightlifting event and she qualified for the (2015) youth nationals,” Christie-Lee McNally said.

Now McNally is a powerfully built young woman with shoulders comparable to a competitive swimmer’s.

U.S. NEEDS WOMEN WEIGHTLIFTERS

McNally says that, like many of her peers, she once “wanted to be like the skinny little girl.”

Not anymore.

“Once I saw the bigger athletes in the CrossFit world and saw how their bodies looked, it was reassuring,” McNally said. “Strong actually looks really good.”

Women’s weightlifting has been an Olympic sport since 2000, when Americans Tara Knott (gold) and Cheryl Haworth (bronze) won medals. No U.S. women’s lifter has medaled at the Olympics since then.

Only three women weightlifters from the U.S. will compete at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The American senior women’s record for total weight in McNally’s weight class is 225 kilograms.

McNally is not daunted by the long odds. She believes she can qualify for U.S. teams that would compete at world or Pan-American youth championships in 2017.

“But the thing is, those are little goals, not the big goal,” McNally said. “I’m a very, very competitive person. I just want to win.”