There were times Sarah Roles felt her morality and integrity were called into question, two long years of sitting on the competition sidelines waiting and moments where she had to be motivated to just pick back up the bar again.
But it was all worth it Sunday night as Robles put USA Weightlifting back on the map, taking home the bronze medal in the women’s +75kg class at the Rio Olympics with a 286kg total. It marked Team USA’s first weightlifting medal since 2000 and Robles’ first medal in a major international competition.
Robles, 28, was also a member of the 2012 Olympic team in London. But a lot has happened since then, including a two-year ban from the sport for a positive drug test that ended just a year ago.
At the time, she thought her career was over.
“That hurt me a lot, and it was hard to overcome,” Robles, who has said previously that a medication she was taking for a hormone imbalance contained a banned substance, told the Desert Sun.
“Being unable to compete for two years was a huge blow to my athletic career. And dealing with the financial burden of paying fines, the public humiliation of relinquishing titles and prizes I worked so hard for … there was a lot of emotional drama that just made everything difficult. This past year alone has been hard, too, with my most recent competitions and how some people have reacted negatively to me lifting again.”
Robles bombed out at this year’s Olympic Trials, missing all three 118 kg snatch attempts. Violently ill just two days prior, Robles showed up 11 pounds lighter than usual thanks to a fever and bouts of vomiting.
“She overcame a lot of adversity,” Robles’ Houston-based coach Tim Swords said. “I knew she wasn’t right. I saw her in the warmup room. You’re a high level athlete you have to suck it up, but she wasn’t right.”
Robles has never been a quitter and, after the Trials snatch fails, still took the stage and managed a 150 kg clean and jerk. It came down to one lift, Mattie Rogers missing a 141 kg clean and jerk, for Robles to go to Rio based on cumulative performance totals. The decision caused some circles —particularly those who don’t understand the complexity of the process— to raise their eyebrows about Robles getting the nod over fan-favorite Rogers.
“She was continuously making gains on the totals. At University Nationals she let everyone know that she’s a person who is legitimately has a top five total in the world. That she could be on the medal stand,” Swords said. “They made the right decision.”
That was solidified Sunday night, as Robles successfully locked out a 160 kg jerk and ended USA’s medal drought. As soon as she was cleared to drop, the celebration began. Robles lifted her arms out to the sides and sank to her knees, smacking the platform a few times and blowing kisses to the crowd for good measure.
This was the reason why she had returned, why she had taken jobs on the side to fund her training. This was her redemption.
“Nobody expected her to be come back from the suspension,” Swords said of Robles, who made headlines leading up to London for living off less than $400 a month. “She’s a genetically gifted person and has always fought an uphill battle. Always.”
“She’s always fighting that [stereotype], she’s a big girl. We are such a superficial group…what the hell, if Sarah Robles was a man she would be a multi-millionaire probably playing football in the NFL. She is gifted.
It’s just that we look at her and she’s not cute, or she doesn’t have that marketable look or the CrossFit look. Screw it. That’s not what this is all about. That’s why there’s weight classes in lifting. Sarah is a kind, Christian lady, who you don’t have to worry about a thing when she goes to a competition, because she is going to do the right thing. She’s been in big competitions her whole life.”
Robles, who went a perfect 6-for-6 in Sunday’s lifts, was the top discus thrower in the United States as a high schooler coming out of California. She had a full ride to Alabama and probably could have been an Olympic hopeful if she didn’t opt to take up weightlifting full-time in 2010.
Despite being born with Madelung’s Deformity, which causes pain in both her wrists/forearms Robles was a natural and quickly ascended the weightlifting ladder.
The London Games, where she placed seventh, put Robles on the map. The subsequent failed drug test sent her spiraling to the bottom, costing her sponsorships, health insurance and her old coach.
“Quitting was never an option for me. I regarded the ban as an injury to my career which would be easier to recover from than an injury to my body,” Robles said to the Sun. “I knew I would have regrets if I didn’t give it all I had to try and qualify again this time around.”