RIO DE JANEIRO — Sarah Robles shed the weight of self-doubt and negativity so she could lift the 286 kilograms necessary to earn a bronze medal.
“I’ve had a really hard few months coming into these Olympic trials, and there’s a lot of times I had doubts,” said the California native, who said part of her journey to a more positive outlook included reaffirming her faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Overall, this quad has been the most challenging, mentally, for me. Trying to overcome my own self-doubts, trying to erase the negativity of a lot of people around me before. Before coming to the games, I was starting to get wrapped up in the result too much. I was worried about the weights on the bar, worried too much about getting medals.”
At a retreat where the team received their Team USA uniforms, they heard from former Olympians, and it helped her realize what mattered most wasn’t what she could win but what she could experience.
“We’re here for the process,” said Robles, who pumped her fists and collapsed to the floor before standing to curtsey in the direction of a group of family and friends who’d come to support her after her final clean and jerk lift of 160 kilos. “We’re here for the learning experiences. We’re here to represent our countries. And that day I was crying my eyes out. I had an overwhelming sense of American pride and Olympism.”
Robles' bronze medal is the first for the U.S. in weightlifting since 2000. She did everything she could to put herself in a position to medal in front of a raucous crowd, including making all six of her lifts, in what was her best performance this year.
She said her coach told her before she went out for her last lift that she needed to give the next few seconds her best effort. “He said, ‘This is eight seconds against the rest of your life,’” she said, adding that she didn’t watch the other lifts or worry about whether they might beat her. “I was sort of lost in my own moment.”
China’s Meng Suping won the gold medal on her last lift with a 177-kilogram clean and jerk for a 307 total. She edged Kim Kuk Hyang, People’s Republic of Korea, who lifted 306 kilograms.
Meng was a late addition to the Chinese team, so she said she struggled a little with nerves.
“I think this competition, for me, is indeed a very personal challenge,” Meng said. “I came onstage very nervous. But I was able to stabilize myself before joining the competition. I just followed my coach’s directions and treated every lift as a lift by itself. I think the end result was pretty good.”
Robles said in trying to move herself in a positive direction in her life and her sport, she’s focused as much on emotional and spiritual health as she has physical development. In July, she took out her temple endowments and she had an LDS priesthood blessing before she came to the games. She and her coach, Tim Swords, a Catholic, were studying scriptures recently when they came across something that has resonated with her.
“I had a moment with my coach,” she said in the post-competition press conference. “We were reading scriptures together, and … it talked about using your faith as a foundation and using singing and dancing as a way to praise. And I’ve tried to view the platform as my spiritual foundation, and my lifts as singing and dancing and praising. I try to keep it in the right perspective and use my body to glorify my God.”
Swords was emotional after Robles’ accomplishment, while she was giddy. She said she doesn’t even remember what she did after completing her sixth lift.
“I felt like an Olympic champion to myself,” she said of the effort that she called her “absolute best.”
None of the women in the competition had ever lifted 300 kilograms in competition before Sunday night. Robles said she was proud to be a part of such an impressive weightlifting competition.
“I think what happened tonight is a phenomenal thing,” Robles said. “I think it’s a great thing for weightlifting, as a sport; I think it’s a great thing for women; I think it’s a great thing for women of size; I think it’s great for our countries. … I think what we’re doing is a good thing. I think it’s good for society; I think it’s good for the world. And it’s nice to be part of the movement, the Olympic movement, and the movement of empowering women.”