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The journey of a Mormon Olympic weightlifter

“Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.” – Alma 26:12

Moments before attempting to lift a new personal best and qualify for the U.S. Olympic women’s weightlifting team on March 4, Sarah Robles offered one of the most meaningful prayers of her life.

“Heavenly Father, I really need this lift to be on the Olympic team. Please give me the courage and strength I need to lift it,” the 23-year-old petitioned in her heart.

The total weight on the bar measured 144 kilograms (316 pounds), and as Robles heaved upward, she immediately thought, “There is no way.” Across the room, her coach and friend feared Robles would lose the bar.

Then with a burst of hidden strength, Robles recovered. She managed to clean and jerk the bar triumphantly over her head. She had done it — she was going to the 2012 London Games.

“Nobody thought I would make it,” she said. “I don’t know how it happened. It was like there were angels on the platform. The Lord answered my prayer in a way I probably didn’t deserve. I don’t think I will ever forget that prayer in my life.”

This scene illustrates the physical and spiritual strength of the No. 1-ranked female weightlifter in the United States.

Robles’ all-inclusive strength was developed through years of overcoming adversity. From growing up in humble circumstances, to caring for and losing loved ones and other personal challenges, Robles credits her family and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ for giving her the fortitude to chase her dreams.

“I don’t know how I’ve done it. It’s taken a long time to recognize my place and purpose,” Robles said. “The LDS Church has played a big role. … It has given me a support system, an outlet and perspective for what I’m doing. It’s helped me know where my priorities should be.”

Family strength

Joy Robles gave birth to her 10-pound, 14-ounce baby daughter, Sarah, without any pain medication in 1988.

“Yeah, it wasn’t pleasant,” Joy said. “Her whole life she has been bigger. People expected more of her because she looked older than she was.”

Because she was taller and heavier, Sarah Robles endured frequent teasing from other kids. Her grandfather helped her feel better by saying, “They don’t know who you are. Tell them you are Ed TarBush’s granddaughter.”

Sarah Robles was raised in Desert Hot Springs and San Jacinto, Calif., surrounded by sickness and suffering. Her grandmother had multiple sclerosis, her grandfather had diabetes and her father, Dennis, had Buerger’s disease, a rare disease in which blood vessels of the hands and feet become blocked.

Most of Dennis Robles’ health problems stemmed an addiction to alcohol, Sarah said. During her young life, he was hospitalized for liver failure. When she was 11, corrective surgery on her father’s legs led to a blood clot in his brain and he had a stroke. He also experienced kidney failure. The stroke left him permanently disabled and unable to communicate. Joy Robles quit her job to provide constant care for her husband for the next six years. During that time, the family basically survived on Social Security and military benefits (her father had served in the U.S. Air Force), Sarah recalled.

As a result, Sarah’s parents rarely saw her compete in the throwing events with the high school track and field team. It was a difficult period in all their lives that forced Sarah to grow up fast.

“There was not much time with mom. She had all the duties. She did everything,” Sarah said. “The most difficult part (with my dad) was the lack of communication. With him it was an endless game of charades for six years.”

Dennis Robles died in 2006. Although Sarah can’t recall the sound of his voice, she cherishes several good memories and important lessons.

“He taught me how to work, how to survive and earn something for my family. You realize things happen in life and it stinks, but what are you going to do about it? You can’t just sit there and sob, you’ve got to learn how to overcome those problems and keep pushing forward for a happy life.”

According to Sarah, Dennis Robles’ health problems and death had a traumatizing effect on her older brother, Glen. As a result, their sibling relationship was strained.

“When I went to college, I was so relieved,” she said. “I didn’t want to see or talk to him ever again.”

Had it not been for her friends and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, finding forgiveness and healing would have been difficult.

Spiritual strength

While Dennis Robles was raised Methodist and Joy was Catholic, Sarah said she didn’t really have a religious foundation growing up. Even so, her mother supported her religious curiosity.

“We allowed her to go and choose,” Joy said.

Many of Robles’ track and field teammates were Latter-day Saints. One day she asked if she could attend worship services and was welcomed with open arms. Robles went and was touched when an instructor gave a lesson centered on Jesus as the great shepherd.

“I started crying and went into the hall. I couldn’t understand why I was crying,” she said. “Someone told me I was feeling the Spirit.”

Robles spent five months investigating the LDS Church and meeting with the missionaries. The teachings were easy for her to understand. There was some resistance from an old pastor, but Robles was undaunted. She was baptized in July 2006.

“Finally, it fit. Everything was there,” she said. “It was like it was already implanted in me.”

In joining the LDS Church, Sarah learned her maternal grandparents were Latter-day Saints, as well as other extended family members, including her cousin, San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle.

“I couldn’t believe it — I had all these LDS ties,” Sarah said. “My family was very supportive.”

Since she was baptized, Robles said the gospel has provided her with a new perspective in life and helped her to heal from past wounds.

“I’ve been working on a lot of forgiving issues, and the gospel has helped,” she said. “Stuff happens and sometimes its nobody's fault. People have problems and that’s OK. They are hard to deal with, but as the years go by, the more I pray for comfort, the wounds start to heal. They are still there, but in the future we will all be made whole. The feelings, the pains and agonies we all face, will be gone and we will all have happiness. I continue to have faith that those things will happen.”

Physical strength

As a member of the San Jacinto High track team, Sarah competed in the shot put, discus and hammer throwing events. To help her improve strength, coach Rich McClure taught Robles some Olympic weightlifting methods.

After high school, Robles accepted a track and field scholarship to the University of Alabama, but when things didn’t work out, she transferred to Arizona State.

In 2008, Robles met Joe Micela, a strength and conditioning coach at Performance One, a health and fitness training facility in Mesa, Ariz.

While working out during her redshirt year, Robles impressed Micela. He thought she had Olympic potential.

“She took to it real easily. She has unbelievable athletic ability; she’s fast, agile and strong,” Micela said. “She went to some national competitions and medaled in everything, so she left track and field, at a good program, to pursue weightlifting.”

Micela began helping her train, including diet and psychologically, for a spot in the London Games.

One challenge Robles has had to overcome in pumping iron is Madelung’s deformity, a congenital deformity of the forearm that causes pain when lifting. Robles wears wrist wraps, rubs on warming cream and receives massages to help ease the discomfort, but ultimately has to ignore the pain. She also works hard to care for her hands and prevent calluses from ripping.

“What I do is just do everything I can to help strengthen up that area and keep it as healthy as possible,” she said.

Robles qualified at the U.S. Olympic Women’s Weightlifting trials in Columbus, Ohio, in March. She lifted the highest total (258 kilograms) of 15 competitors. Holley Mangold, the 22-year-old sister of New York Jets center Nick Mangold, claimed the second spot.

Micela thinks the gold and silver will go to China and Russia. The bronze will be a fight among Nigeria, Samoa, Korea and the United States, the coach said.

“She has a good shot at the bronze medal, but it's not going to be easy,” Micela said. “Anything could happen; someone could have a bad day. But it's her fourth year of major competition. She been around them and knows what they expect. Now it's going out and doing what she can do.”

Getting stronger

Robles hopes that all of her hard work will culminate in a strong performance at the Olympic Games this summer. Coach Micela and several family members will be in London to cheer her on.

“It won’t feel real until I get there. I’m excited,” she said. “I’d hate to disappoint all the people who helped me along the way. I’m grateful their help.”

Sarah also acknowledges the heavenly help that she’s received.

"I've relied more on my faith as difficult times have come in my career. There's been a lot of little miracles. I don’t know why, but God wants me on the Olympic team and he has blessed me in the journey,” Robles said. “I just needed to have faith, do everything on my end that I can possibly do and know that God would fill in the blanks.”

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