“Sarah Elizabeth Robles. Olympian. Bronze medalist. Badass.” That’s how Twitter user @haleshannon succinctly put it after Robles became the first female Olympian on Team USA to medal in weightlifting since 2000.
Female athletes come in many shapes and sizes based on their sport, but Robles, 28, still doesn’t look like the majority of them. At about 273 pounds and a little more than 5’10.5″, according to Team USA’s official website, she may not even look like an athlete to many — specifically those who bullied her on social media during her competition on Aug. 14.
Things that used to get me bullied are the things that made me to become an Olympian. Consider that when some jerk tries to tear you down.
— Sarah Robles (@roblympian) May 28, 2016
But the California native, who is often referred to as the strongest woman in America, according to the Daily Dot, is having the last laugh. She also hopes to have a major impact on girls and women throughout the world.
Of scoring bronze in the women’s 75-plus-kilogram division, Robles told Reuters, “This means a lot, to be on the podium and give exposure to our sport at a time when it’s already growing. It’s good not just for me but for women of size, for women who want to get up off the couch and do something different.”
Even before the competition, the Mexican-American expressed her desire to “inspire young Latino athletes” through her Olympic journey. “As an Olympic athlete, I represent all Americans, but representing Latinos and Latinas is a great honor,” she said earlier this month, according to Fox News Latino.
For Robles, the victory is so sweet because the struggle has been real — and not simply because she outweighed others in her division by 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds), according to the Daily Dot. In January 2014, Robles was banned from competing for two years after testing positive for “prohibited substances.” It turned out she unknowingly had DHEA, testosterone, and pregnanediol in her system while on prescription medication for polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Still, the World Anti-Doping Agency denied her appeal of the ban, which expired just in time for her to qualify for Rio.
But her road stretches back even further. Prior to Rio, Robles had to overcome body-image issues and near-poverty — she lived on $400 a month — while training to to compete in 2012 London Olympics. Despite being the highest-ranked weightlifter in the country (this woman can lift 568 pounds!), she couldn’t manage to score any sponsorships, telling BuzzFeed, “You can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.”
Her struggle didn’t impress one social media user, who suggested Robles’s poverty was self-inflicted, as she decided willingly to dedicate her life to mastering weightlifting instead of landing a high-paying job. “The majority [of sportspeople] would probably earn more if they got proper jobs that were of benefit to their society, instead of doing their chosen sport for a living,” he wrote.
Ever the good-natured, level-headed sport, Robles shut him down in a way that also opened up a dialogue on her Instagram:
Despite obstacles and detractors, Robles’s sport gave her the self-esteem boost she needed to lift her way to the Olympics, twice. “I still have bad thoughts about myself, but I’ve learned that you have to love yourself the way you are,” Robles said to BuzzFeed back in 2012, when she was headed to the London Games. “I may look like this, but I’m in the Olympics because of the way I am.” Her mom, Joy Robles, echoed those sentiments to the site, saying, “When she got into sports, she came home one day and she said, ‘I finally feel accepted.’ That’s when she just kind of settled into herself.”
Gearing up for her competition in Rio, Robles just wanted to have her “best day,” medal or no medal. For her, it was about the glory of being at the Olympics and the fact that her mind and body had gotten her this far. “If it [competing] got me medals, cool,” she said, according to the NBC’s official Olympics website. “If it didn’t, then at least I had the best day. You can’t complain when you do your absolute best.”
Now Robles is doing the opposite of complaining — she’s basking in her record-making accomplishment. She doesn’t need to say much to express how she feels; it’s written all over her face. Between her triumphant expression after she lifted “all the weights tonight,” as she said on Instagram, to her beaming smile as she graciously accepted her medal, it’s easy to see that Robles achieved what she set out to do.
So how does an Olympic bronze medalist cap off one of the best days of her life? With a protein shake and a call to Grandma, of course. As one does.