The Strongest Woman In America Lives In Poverty

Sarah Robles is ranked higher than any other American weightlifter, male or female. She’s the best hope the U.S. has at an Olympic medal in the sport — but she struggles to pay her rent.

Sarah Robles at the Olympic trials. Photo courtesy of Robles.

Weightlifter Sarah Robles is an incredible athlete, but outside the world of squats and snatches, barely anyone knows her name. And even though she’s the U.S.’s best chance at an Olympic medal, she’ll never get the fame or fortune that come so easily to her fellow athletes — in part because, at 5 feet, 10.5 inches and 275 pounds, she doesn’t fit the ideal of thin, toned athletic beauty.

“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,” she says. The 23-year-old from California became the highest ranked weightlifter in the country last year after placing 11th at the world championships, beating out every male and female American on the roster. On her best day, she can lift more than 568 pounds — that’s roughly five IKEA couches, 65 gallons of milk, or one large adult male lion.

But that doesn’t mean much when it comes to signing the endorsement deals that could pay the bills. Track star Lolo Jones, 29, soccer player Alex Morgan, 22, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 29, are natural television stars with camera-friendly good looks and slim, muscular figures. But women weightlifters aren’t go-tos when Sports Illustrated is looking for athletes to model body paint in the swimsuit issue. They don’t collaborate with Cole Haan on accessories lines and sit next to Anna Wintour at Fashion Week, like tennis beauty Maria Sharapova. And male weightlifters often get their sponsorships from supplements or diet pills, because their buff, ripped bodies align with male beauty ideals. Men on diet pills want to look like weightlifters — most women would rather not.

Courtesy Sarah Robles.

Meanwhile, Robles — whose rigorous training schedule leaves her little time for outside work — struggles to pay for food. It would be hard enough for the average person to live off the $400 a month she receives from U.S.A. Weightlifting, but it’s especially difficult for someone who consumes 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, a goal she meets through several daily servings of grains, meats and vegetables, along with weekly pizza nights.

She also gets discounted groceries from food banks and donations from her coach, family and friends — or, as Robles says, “prayers and pity.” Robles could save cash by moving into the free dormitories at U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado, but she refuses to leave her coach, Joe Micela, who’s become a father figure to her: Her own father died of a blood vessel disease when she was 17.

Robles grew up in Desert Hot Springs and San Jacinto, Calif., where she became a top-ranked shot putter who earned scholarships to University of Alabama and later Arizona State University. She was self-conscious about her body from a young age, until middle school, when she first got into sports and discovered she could use her large frame to her advantage.

“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,” her mom Joy Robles says.

Coach Micela began working with Robles in 2008, when she was attending Arizona State and began lifting weights to improve her shot-put throw. Within just three months of training with Micela, Robles had qualified for weightlifting nationals and decided to forfeit her scholarship. She began competing across the country and the world — beating every other American at the world championships last year. Then, in March, Robles and fellow super heavyweight competitor Holley Mangold qualified for the U.S. Olympics team. (Robles beat Mangold by four kilograms.)

Because of her financial troubles, Micela donates much of his time and pays to travel with Robles to competitions. Most Olympians make money through their governing bodies, as well as sponsorships, endorsements, speaking engagements, and the like. These endorsements can be worth six figures or more — like Michael Phelps’ $1 million deal to be a spokesman for Mazda in China — or they can compensate athletes with free equipment or products. PowerBar is Robles’ only product sponsorship and her name isn’t yet big enough to land her any big special appearances.

“It’s simple,” Robles says. “If a company wants to advertise their brand, there’s no benefit in sponsoring you if you’re not getting any exposure.”

Robles competing at the world championships last year. Courtesy of Robles.

As an Olympian, Robles doesn’t have to pay for her own travel, lodging and food in London. Neither does her mother, Joy, who won a special grant for Olympic parents from Procter & Gamble.

“I really didn’t think I had a chance in hell of going,” says Joy, who has only been able to afford to see her daughter lift competitively three times. “We’re so used to not good stuff happening, so this is just kind of mind-boggling.”

Since the Olympics began hosting women’s weightlifting in 2000, only two American women have ever earned medals, both at the inaugural Sydney games: Tara Nott, who won gold in the flyweight category, and Cheryl Haworth, who earned bronze in super heavyweight, Robles’ category. If she does medal, Robles says her chances of landing more sponsorships won’t dramatically increase — after all, they didn’t increase much for Cheryl Haworth after her win at age 17. Following Haworth’s second Olympics, she had to sell her house and move to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“Being an Olympian isn’t always glamorous. We don’t get tons of dough. Maybe one or two percent of athletes can actually make a living off it,” says Haworth, 29, who retired two years ago and now works as an admissions officer for the Savannah College of Art and Design. “It’s a sacrifice that not everyone is willing to make. Not everybody is willing to scrounge or figure out how to pay those bills … Sarah’s ability to get through those tough times really sets her apart.”

Robles wants to teach P.E. when she retires from weightlifting — sometime in the next four to 10 years, she says. When she’s not training, she blogs, crafts and goes to church. She went on a few dates before the Olympic trials, but she’s shy, and it’s hard to find a guy who’s comfortable dating a woman who’s bigger, taller and completely committed to her training.

“I still have bad thoughts about myself, but I’ve learned that you have to love yourself the way you are,” Robles says. “I may look like this, but I’m in the Olympics because of the way I am.”

Robles has become a role model to the bigger girls who come work out in her Mesa, Ariz., gym. She’s not entirely comfortable with the idea of being someone’s mentor, but she’s easing herself into the job. On her blog, she shares weightlifting tips and stories of being a plus-size athlete. She also has a Twitter and Facebook page, where she shares her mantra, “Beauty is strength,” with about 350 followers. It’s become her personal brand, and if she’s lucky, sponsors with a similar message will catch on.

Still, Robles and Micela aren’t overly optimistic about her chances in London. Robles might be the best in the U.S., but the current women’s world record is about 150 pounds over her personal best.

“If she beats her own record, I’ll be happy,” says Micela, whom Robles calls her “number one sponsor.”

“I’ve learned that if you love yourself now, you can do amazing things. If you don’t, you’re closing so many doors,” Robles says. “It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes work and it takes practice. Just like my sport.”

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