Mary Theisen Lappen, right, and her coach Wil Fleming after competition in Havana ©Brian Oliver

Mary Theisen Lappen came desperately close to overtaking her United States team-mate Sarah Robles, who has won two Olympic medals, in an exciting women’s super-heavyweight session here in Havana.

The US also had a good result in the men’s super-heavyweights, the final session at the International Weightlifting Federation Grand Prix, when Aaron Williams made a total of 390 kilograms on his international debut, in only his sixth weightlifting meet. 

Like Theisen Lappen, Williams is a late starter who moved across from another sport.

This is the third of seven possible qualifying opportunities for Paris 2024 and two Americans may go head-to-head in the remaining four before a "winner" emerges.

It is close in all the women’s Olympic weight categories, where the US has two contenders, and only the one with the bigger total can qualify for Paris.

Theisen Lappen, known as "Coach Mary" because of her background as a successful athletics coach before she came to weightlifting, thought she could make her final clean and jerk of 164kg and wanted to do it not just to move one kilogram ahead of Robles in the rankings.

"It sounds silly but I was thinking ‘this would be a really good thing for Father’s Day’. My dad and mum were watching back home and texting me.

"They’ll be happy regardless. This was a personal record for me on total and it would have been a huge PR if I’d made that last lift.

"I was thinking 'I can really make this' - but then I didn’t make the jerk. I should probably have waited one more second before I jerked it. Maybe next time, it’s OK."

"Coach Mary" completed the lift but it got three red lights and a challenge failed when the jury agreed with the referees that there was movement in both arms.

Mary Theisen Lappen came close to overtaking teammate Sarah Robles in the Paris 2024 weightlifting rankings ©Brian Oliver
Mary Theisen Lappen came close to overtaking teammate Sarah Robles in the Paris 2024 weightlifting rankings ©Brian Oliver

She was very happy with an improved snatch performance. 

"It was good especially in terms of technique," she said.

"In the past eight weeks I’ve felt like I’m becoming a good snatcher. I’m feeling now that I can get close-ish to the others in snatch and then lift more in clean and jerk."

This was only the fourth international competition for Theisen Lappen, 33, and the first time she has competed against athletes from beyond the Americas.

Because she has Norwegian heritage she was keen to meet Solfrid Koanda, Norway’s 81kg winner here. 

"We talked for quite a time about the next week. Solfrid is going hiking in the mountains, I’m going home to spend some time with mum and dad.

"Everybody will be having a fun week before starting to prepare for the Worlds."

Theisen Lappen, who made 119-158-277, finished ahead of Robles but is five kilograms behind her in the long list rankings. 

Robles, who won bronze in Rio and Tokyo, made 126-150-276 in second place and Lisseth Ayovi from Ecuador was third on 116-150-266.

In the men’s event the Tokyo 2020 Olympic silver medallist Ali Davoudi from Iran won by a wide margin on 203-238-441, and it would have been wider had he not failed with his final two attempts at 251 and 252kg.

The men's super-heavyweight podium in Havana ©Brian Oliver
The men's super-heavyweight podium in Havana ©Brian Oliver

Second-placed David Liti from New Zealand made all three clean and jerks to move up the rankings on 174-226-400, an improvement of four kilograms on his best in qualifying. Tamas Kajdoci from Serbia was third on 175-216-391.

Williams, 28, went straight into the Paris rankings at 16th with his remarkable performance but will not be able to qualify because he arrived so late on the scene he was not entered for the World Championships, a compulsory event, at the preliminary stage.

Before today Williams, who played college football for the University of Central Oklahoma, had competed in three local meets and two at national level.

His total exceeded the 389kg needed to get a stipend from USA Weightlifting but there may have to be some negotiating, because the payments are not available to anyone who is ineligible for Paris qualifying.

"I started weightlifting about a year and a half ago, and I’m really enjoying it," Williams said. "I’m lucky that the owner of my gym is an Olympic weightlifting coach who said he’d teach me after he saw my cleans. I always enjoyed being in the weight room as a football player."

Williams made 175-215-390 for fourth place, outperforming his team-mate Alejandro Medina, who failed with all three clean and jerks as he tried to improve on his best qualifying total of 385kg.

Eduard Ziaziulin, who had an entry total of 440kg, declined all his remaining lifts after making 181kg with his first snatch. He has been suffering from a back problem and hopes to be fit for the World Championships in September.

Ziaziulin, 24, made 447kg on total at his last competition for Belarus when he finished fourth at the 2021 IWF World Championships.