RIO DE JANEIRO – Less than 10 seconds separated Sarah Robles from a personal goal and a historic performance. That was her coach’s message to her heading into her final lift on Sunday at Riocentro - Pavilion 2.
“I said to her, ‘Do you want to be on the medal stand? This is your opportunity,’” said Tim Swords, Robles’ coach. “’This is five seconds against the rest of your life.’ I said, ‘What do you want to do?’ You gotta bring it now, and you gotta go for it. Just five seconds of your life. This is going to change your life. Five seconds.’”
A lift of 160 kg. after five grueling lifts, each one heavier than the last, gave Robles her first Olympic medal, a bronze in the +75 kg. weight class. It was Team’s USA first medal in women’s weightlifting in 16 years.
Robles lifted a combined 286 kg., including 126 kg. in the snatch and 160 kg. in the clean and jerk. She finished 21 kg. behind China’s Suping Meng, who took home the gold medal.
The last time the U.S. won a medal in weightlifting was at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Tara Nott won a gold medal in women’s flyweight, while Cheryl Haworth took home a bronze medal in super heavyweight, Robles’ class.
“I think I’ve entertained the idea of being a medalist for a long time,” Robles said. “That’s always been a goal of mine. I’ve always wanted to make it [since] I got involved with weightlifting. … This has been something that I’ve wanted, that I’ve been working for. … The idea of being a medalist is always there. It’s almost like why you’re doing it. You want to win. I like competing, I like winning. That’s the purpose of what we’re doing. But, of course, any success is earned.”
Robles started weightlifting in 2008 as a way to help her train for track and field. She threw shot put and discus in high school and added hammer throw in college.
In four short years she made the Olympic team for the London 2012 Games, where she finished seventh. After a two-year suspension for testing positive for the banned substance DHEA, which she says was recommended by a doctor to assist in treating her polycystic ovary syndrome, Robles returned last year, finishing sixth at the 2015 world championships, and this year earned a spot to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
However, she suffered a small wrist injury at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. It could have shook Robles’ confidence and derailed her ahead of Rio, but Swords saw none of that.
“She was more calm here than she has been all year,” said Swords, Robles’ coach of 2 ½ years. “There was no anxiety. She was just ready to do what we asked her to do, and she did exactly what we asked her to do.”
Robles went six for six in her lifts, with her mother in attendance. She lifted 118, 122 and a personal-record 126 kg. in the snatch. In the clean and jerk, she lifted 151 and 155 kg., the latter of which she said led to pain in her upper back.
But she had to lie to herself that she felt no pain. She needed to make a personal-record lift of 160 kg. and hope no one knocked her out of third place. It was before that final lift she and Swords talked.
“I had, to me, the perfect day,” Robles said. “I’m the only person competing against myself. I’m competing against my own fears. I’m competing against my own body. And I feel like an Olympic champion. I felt awesome after I was lifting. I was just lost in my moment.”
Frank Gogola is a student in the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.