RIO DE JANEIRO — Two years ago, Sarah Robles looked at her life and realized she’d allowed her life to drift far from her dreams because she didn’t feel like she fit the Mormon mold.
“I’m not a stereotypical LDS girl,” said the 28-year old LDS weightlifter about a week before she won bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games. “If you’re in the (LDS) church, you learn church culture, and that’s not me. … You know, our church is very centered in family life and having children, and kind of, well, I resigned to the fact that I was going to be alone. … I live a different life.”
Robles’ life is that of a world-class weightlifter.
'Be my best self'
A two-time Olympian and three-time national champion said that while she’s always been comfortable with being different, she felt like the typical Mormon goals were out of reach for her.
“I thought it was just never going to happen for me, so what’s the point?” said Robles, a California native who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a teen. “After a while, I kind of figured out if I want that to happen, I need to be my best self. And not being an active member of the church isn’t going to get me the things that I had wanted, which would be a temple marriage and raising my family in the church, and those types of things, like having a priesthood holder in my home. So I was like, ‘Sarah, you’re thinking is wrong and it’s silly. So just go back.’”
When she moved back to Texas in February 2014, she decided that would be where she would rediscover her faith. She said she committed to taking every opportunity to build her faith, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
“If it’s a silly activity, just go,” she said. “Go to meetings, just do it. And eventually, I got reactivated.”
Robles said she has always felt a little outside the norm. But at the same time, she’s always tried to strive for balance in her professional, emotional and spiritual life. Always “taller and bigger” than most of her classmates, Robles found a home in athletics.
“I don’t fit in,” she said. “I’ve always been bigger and taller than everybody else in high school. I was the one girl still in Girl Scouts when I was in high school. I’m a girl doing a traditionally male sport. Everything that I have ever done is against the grain. I’m used to being isolated, but there is a certain beauty in that.”
She said feeling odd has pushed her to pursue her passion and not do what everyone else is doing. It’s a message she now offers to young women like her who don’t fit the standard of beauty society tries to push on women or the types of interests deemed feminine.
“When everyone wants to be like something else, that’s when things go awry,” she said. “That’s when you feel inept. I don’t think anyone is inept. I just think you have to find something you like and just go with it.”
For Robles, that was track and field.
In high school, it was discus that earned her a college scholarship, but during her redshirt season at Arizona State University, she was introduced to weightlifting. Within just a few months of trying it, she qualified for a national competition.
She said she still has mixed feelings about never pursuing track to her fullest potential.
“When I look back on it, I think about what could have been, but at the same time, I made a decision and it’s led me to be a two-time Olympian,” she said. “I think of that time (at ASU) as the genesis of my weightlifting career.”
Robles laughs as she describes her love-hate relationship with exercise.
“I’m a person, like I don’t really even like training, to be honest,” she said laughing. “There is a lot of convincing yourself. I love traveling, love competing, and I love being stronger than other people and I love winning. But the day-to-day grind, some people are like, ‘Oh, I went running and I love the endorphins!’ I’m like, ‘No way, man.’ That’s not my life. If I’m training and I’m working out, it needs to be for a purpose. That’s just a daily struggle to overcome… Some days, I look at my shoes for 30 minutes. I have to convince myself to do things.”
Road to Rio
Robles has worked with a sports psychologist for the last year, and she had to double those efforts after a terrible performance at the national championships in May, which doubled as the sport’s Olympic qualifier. Luckily, she’d had enough success in other international competitions that she qualified on those points — barely.
But that experience left her doubting her abilities and not much time to overcome it.
“It’s the second time I’ve been in that situation where I didn’t total,” she said. “But this time around there was more pressure; more eyes on me.”
She took what she learned from her first experience in which she failed to complete a single lift in both required categories, and made some life adjustments that helped her bounce back quicker and mentally stronger. She also had the benefit of having come back from testing positive for DHEA, testosterone and pregnanedoil in 2013, which resulted in a two-year ban from the sport.
She has said that she was taking medication for polycystic ovarian syndrome and didn’t realize the treatments included banned substances. She spoke about it briefly before the 2016 Summer Games, saying the experience made her more compassionate to athletes caught in a similar situation.
“I have a greater understanding now and appreciation,” she said. “I give the athlete the benefit of the doubt. … Even though it might be an issue in someone’s life, it’s not who they are, it’s not what they are.”
After her poor performance at the national championships in Salt Lake City, Robles moved out of the Olympic Training Center and back to Texas where she worked with her longtime coach Tim Swords and an unorthodox sports psychologist.
Swords and Robles have a close relationship that includes sharing their faith — his Catholic beliefs and her Mormon religion.
Before the Olympics, Swords gave her a St. Michael pendant that she wore during her Rio 2016 experience. She explained to reporters what it represented to her at a precompetition press conference.
“I’m just carrying his faith with me, his faith in me and God’s faith,” she said. “I’m a big fan of being a well-rounded person. I don’t just need to be physically strong, I need to be spiritually strong and emotionally strong.”
Additionally, she said they study scriptures together and she prays before every competition, although she doesn’t ask for help earning any wins.
“I mostly pray for health and learning experiences, not just for myself but (for my competitors),” she said.
Robles also decided to receive her temple endowment in July, something she said she’s wanted to do for quite some time.
“It’s one of those things that I knew needed to be done,” she said. “It’s something I’d been preparing for, and then I read my patriarchal blessing … and I had the impression, ‘You need to do this.’ When you have a prompting in your heart, sometimes you need to just go with it. So I prepared and I did it.”
She felt her decision to do that added to the experiences she had in Rio.
“Taking out your endowments,” she said, “you get to learn more, it gives you a special sense of protection and feel spiritually stronger.”
Everything she did leading up to her bronze medal performance Aug. 14 revolved around focusing on what she could control and letting go of that which she could not. Robles believes everyone is blessed with gifts, and hers just happens to be tremendous physical strength. Whatever pain or isolation she’s experienced because of her physical appearance, she also believes it has been one of her life’s greatest blessings. It is, after all, the reason she could stand on an Olympic podium with a bronze medal around her neck.
Afterward, she said, she saw using her gift as her way to praise God. She also offered those who attended her medal-winning performance, which saw both the gold medalist and the silver medalist lift over 300 kilograms, while Robles lifted 286-kilograms, as a statement about how diverse and powerful women can be.
“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.”