Pannell’s father Dan died from cancer in 2018. During one of their final moments together, he reminisced with sadness about opportunities that had come along during his life that he wished he had taken but had passed on instead.
He urged his daughter to live boldly, take chances and create a full, rich life that she could later look back on without regret.
At the time, Pannell was working as a gymnastics coach in Napa. She had practiced gymnastics for 10 years, reaching level 9 / training level 10. To stay in shape after retiring from gymnastics, she took up CrossFit, where she displayed a knack for weightlifting. A CrossFit coach took notice and suggested that she enter a weightlifting competition in Sacramento.
The circumstances for Pannell to launch herself competitively into the challenging, physically demanding new sport were not ideal. She was about 40 pounds overweight, the result of a recently ended bad relationship, and had received no formal weightlifting training. However, driven by her dad’s spirit, she dropped 20 pounds and entered the meet in October 2018.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have any help,” the novice weightlifter says. Weighing in at 121 pounds, she snatched 145 pounds, clean & jerked 187 pounds and, remarkably for a lifter making her competitive debut, qualified for a national event two months later in Milwaukee.
At the American Open, Pannell improved both of her lifts to place 14th out of 59 in her division. More importantly, the experience ignited in her a passion for pumping iron and she has remained all in since.
Pannell trains at California Strength in San Ramon, a gym known for training elite lifters. At the recommendation of the coaches there, she reduced her weight to 108 pounds while adding strength. She currently snatches 180 pounds and cleans & jerks 230, which places her in the top 10 among all women lifters in America, an amazing achievement for someone who has been lifting for only two years.
Pannell is focused on two goals: representing USA Weightlifting in the 2021 Pan American championships and the 2024 Olympics in Paris. She faces strong competition to make the US Olympic team. Only two lifters per weight class will make the team and the athletes vying for spots in her 49-kilogram class include the number one ranked lifter in the country and a former Olympian.
Staying involved with the sport of her childhood, Pannell coaches compulsory level 4 and 5 gymnasts at Liberty Gymnastics in Concord, where she has worked the past two years.
“We are so proud of Maddi,” notes Joe Van Gogh, who operates Liberty Gymnastics with wife Alethea. “She has developed so much both as a gymnastics coach and as a person. She approaches coaching with great passion and dedication. We are so excited that Maddi’s hard work as a weightlifter is giving her an opportunity to shine.”
To prepare for the challenges ahead, she follows a rigorous training regimen and high-protein, low-calorie diet. She puts in nine two-hour training sessions each week and consumes between 1500-1700 calories per day, rewarding herself occasionally with a dessert of homemade mud cake, low-calorie ice cream or a single-serving cookie. “Sweets are definitely my weakness,” Pannell says. “I really have to watch myself.”
Netflix is filming a docuseries about competitive weightlifting that spotlights Pannell and other Olympic hopefuls as they train. The show is set to air next month.
Pannell says she is “so grateful for the opportunities that presented themselves in my life. I have so much potential and I will not waste it. I want to inspire people, especially the little girls I coach and let them know willpower is an amazing thing.”