Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates the outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Weightlifter Sarah Robles won Female Athlete of the Month for December 2017, during which she won three titles at the world championships in Anaheim, California. In Robles’ Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, she discusses how finding balance in her life helped her succeed in sport.
The reality came down on Sarah Robles as she was standing in line outside her local food bank outside of Phoenix. She was one of the top 10 super heavyweight weightlifters in the world, and she had been living on $400 a month.
There’s a shiny happy ending to this story. Four shiny happy endings, really: At the IWF Weightlifting World Championships last month in Anaheim, California, Robles won three gold medals to go with the Olympic bronze medal she picked up in Rio in 2016. But during those lean years when Robles was giving everything to her sport and getting very little in return, she had a hard time seeing the way forward.
“Weightlifting was my primary focus, and I pretty much had nothing else,” Robles, now 29, recounts. “I wasn’t dating, I wasn’t really going to church, I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have anything outside of weightlifting to make me feel fulfilled and provide a good distraction for me.”
There were only bad distractions. She was denied housing in one place after she couldn’t put down a security deposit. She slept for a while in a friend’s exercise room, in another friend’s guitar room, and stayed for awhile with a third’s grandmother. Her coach spotted her cash for gas so she could drive to practice and back. As she stood in line at the food bank one day, something snapped.
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“I was like, do I want to keep doing this to myself?” she said. “You’re not really getting paid anything. To do that for another four years, was that something I wanted to do? For what? What was going to be the payout? I was grateful for the money I was getting, because otherwise I would have had nothing. But it was stressful.”
Things didn’t improve much after her seventh-place finish at the London Games in 2012, leaving Robles questioning whether she wouldn’t be better off giving up and trying to live a more normal life. She could have a job, a home, cash in her purse.
But she might also have regrets. Robles had given up a promising career as a shot putter to pursue weightlifting. She had strength and obvious potential — after one of her first serious training sessions in 2010, when she snatched 114 kg. and clean & jerked 146 kg., a coach told her, “Sarah, if you keep lifting like that, you could make an Olympic team.”
Sarah Robles reacts after a lift in the women's +75 kg. weightlifting division at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
All the same, Robles sometimes allowed herself to wonder what might have been with track and field. She didn’t want the same thing to happen with weightlifting, another sport she loved.
“I had goals that I wanted to make. I wanted to break the American and Pan Am record. I wanted to win a medal at the Olympic Games,” she said. “So I decided to keep pursuing it.”
Still, something had to change. So Robles packed up and left Arizona for Texas, where she began training with Tim Swords at his garage club in League City. She also found other occupations.
“Weightlifting in general is only two to four hours every day. I needed something to fill up my time with,” she said. “Leading into Rio I made the decision that I was going to go to church more consistently. I got a job, so I had a social outlet there. I started actually hanging out with people and making friends. I started doing other things outside of weightlifting, which helped a lot.”
It would be too simple to say that Robles’ recent success is completely due to the changes she made. Nor does she see immersion in other activities as a Band-Aid solution for all struggling athletes.
“Some athletes might be doing too many extracurricular things,” she points out. “They might be losing focus.”
Allowing herself to let go a little, even for a few hours a day, worked for her.
“It’s too intense for me to have 100 percent focus like that,” she said. “If that’s the only thing you identify with and it doesn’t go well, you feel like that’s the end of the world. Weightlifting is a part of who I am, but it’s not exactly who I am. That’s the distinction I’ve taken. For me to be able to have that shift, I’ve been able to appreciate the sport more, and enjoy my time. And when I’m happy and enjoying myself, I do well.”
Robles appreciated her sterling results in Anaheim, where she executed six clean lifts to become Team USA’s first weightlifting world champion since Robin Byrd in 1994. But she also reveled in the closing ceremony at Knott’s Berry Farm, where she and her friends indulged in burgers and fries and roller coasters. The worries of the past have mostly stayed in the past.
“Things are so much better than I would have ever expected my career to turn out to be,” she said. “When someone gets married, I can go to their wedding. That’s where I’m at now. Obviously if I want to do something, I have to put training first, and figure out how to negotiate my time in that regard, but I’m doing what I want to now. I have no one to answer to outside of my sport and my priorities. I’m just doing what I want, enjoying my time and lifting my weights and trying to perform as best as I can.”
Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor TeamUSA.orgon behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.