Sarah Robles lifts weights and American spirits

Colton High School teacher shares story of former student and Olympic bronze medalist


USA Weightlifting

Sarah Robles became the first female weightlifter to win multiple medals in the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year.

At the 2021 Summer Olympic Games this year in Tokyo, Japan, Sarah Robles became the first US weightlifter in 57 years to win medals in consecutive Olympics. The native of Desert Hot Springs also made history by becoming the first American woman to win multiple medals in weightlifting.
She is also my student.

I first met Sarah Robles in 2004 during my second-year teaching at San Jacinto High School. She was a hulking, goofy girl with a wide gap-toothed smile and twinkling eyes always looking for a way to make people laugh. We both loved ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Mr. Dollins and Sarah Robles pose for a picture following her graduation from San Jacinto High School in 2006. (J. Dollins)

Sarah became truly special to me when she walked into class one day, removed her sandals, and set them in the middle of the room. I chuckled, then upped the ante. I took off my shoes and slipped hers on. The class laughed at the absurdity.

Sarah didn’t miss a beat. She stood up and put mine on. “If you’re gonna walk a mile in my shoes, I guess I gotta walk a bit in yours, too.”

That is Sarah Robles. Her heart is her strongest muscle.

I caught up this week with Sarah, now 33-years-old, fresh off her bronze medal triumph at this year’s Olympic Games.


Olympic Origins

Sarah’s journey for Olympic glory began when she snatched her first barbell, but it was not accompanied by orchestral swells, or a divine light from the heavens.

It was accompanied with deep, incredible soreness. “I lifted an empty barbell and was sore for two weeks,” she said. “I never wanted to do that again.”

Sarah Robles poses for her official Team USA portrait at the 2016 London Games. (USA Weightlifting)

Lifting became part of her shotput and discus training regimen on San Jacinto High School’s track and field team. Her coach, Rich McClure, pushed her to push herself, and in between track and field events, he encouraged her to lift competitively at an event in Newport, CA. Sarah liked the experience and considered weightlifting as a possibility after her collegiate track and field career ended.

Life had other plans, of course. In college, while competing for Arizona State, Sarah tried lifting again and qualified for the Junior National Championships, where she earned her first medal. Then she qualified for the Junior World Championships and received the silver.

The taste of success increased her appetite for lifting, and Sarah made that her priority. She left Arizona State. By 2009, only three years after graduating high school, she made the Senior World Championship Team and the Pan American Team.

Three years later, she was at her first Olympic Games in London.


Gaining Experience

“I was barely in my 20s when I made that first Olympic team,” Sarah told me as she reflected on her first Olympic experience. “When I was younger, I just came in and lifted really hard and hoped it would work out.”

That Olympic experience in London was exciting, but overwhelming for the young lifter.

“The Olympics are literally like no other competition on this planet,” Sarah said. She explained that there are so many things going on at the Games that can take an inexperienced athlete by surprise: the extra security, all the cameras, the international media presence.

Sarah Robles shows off her second bronze medal at the 2021 Tokyo Summer Games. (USA Weightlifting)

Sarah finished sixth at the London games, but she came back dead set on 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was there she won her first bronze medal, putting U.S. women’s weightlifting back on the international radar.

By the time she qualified for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, rescheduled for summer 2021 due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah was an unshakable force on the international stage.

“2020 was the most familiar feeling I’ve had at the Olympics,” she said. “It felt like another competition. Obviously a big, high stakes competition, but nothing that shook me. It was nice coming in with the confidence and experience that coming in as a veteran gives you.”

The experience paid off. Sarah lifted a total of 282 kilograms (622 pounds) at the Games. This number is a combination of her best single lifts in the two weightlifting events, the snatch and the clean and jerk.

In the snatch, the lifter grabs the bar and raises it over their head in one motion. With the clean and jerk, the lifter raises the bar to their chest—the clean—then pushes it over their head in a quick burst of strength—the jerk.

In Tokyo, Sarah’s best snatch was 128kg (283lbs.) and her best clean and jerk was 154kg (339lbs.). Her snatch tied the American record set by Cheryl Haworth in 2003.


What’s Next?

With the 2020 Olympics behind her, Sarah is focused on her future. It is bright and busy.

“I am going to keep lifting,” she announced. “We have our Pan Am Championships in November.” She intends to qualify for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.

But more importantly to Sarah, she will continue the advocacy work she started around her second Olympic Games. As a larger woman, Sarah doesn’t look like the traditional athlete. Over the years, sponsors have refused to work with women that do not fit their expected standards of what a female athlete should be. This has led Sarah to use her national platform to call out companies, like Under Armour, for their double-standards.

“Everybody Everywhere” is a non-profit organization started by Sarah Robles to facilitate inclusivity in outdoor activities for disabled persons. (Sarah Robles)

In 2016, Under Armour released a line of underwear designed to fit “all” athletes. They didn’t fit Sarah, so instead of complaining, she unsheathed her absurdist sense of humor to criticize the sports apparel giant. Her Facebook and Instagram accounts showed objects Under Armour’s underwear did fit, including her head, a six-pound protein supplement container, a medicine ball, a 10kg plate, and a tub of Christmas popcorn.

Now, she is turning her attention to inclusivity for those with special needs. Sarah has started the “Everybody Everywhere” program, which intends to facilitate making the outdoors more accessible and inclusive for those with disabilities.

“How often can a wheelchair user take a hike?” she asked. “How safe is it for your guide dog? I want people who are disabled to be able to enjoy the outdoors too.”

“Everybody Everywhere” will focus on creating a national database for people with disabilities to discover accessible outdoor activities. Sarah will kick off her campaign this September at an event in Delaware.

Sarah Robles is an Olympic champion, but she is so much more than that. She is a wit, a competitor, and a philanthropist. And while she can lift more weight than any woman in the western hemisphere, with her sheer personality and will, she also moves mountains for those without much of a voice.

That’s true Olympic spirit.