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'Nothing's going to stop me'
The term "female weightlifter" doesn't exactly scream femininity.
But as Sarah Robles, one of the stars on Team USA's 2012 women's weightlifting team, strolled towards me in a Manhattan conference room, I saw a confident young woman, completely caked in makeup. Like a TV news anchor or an Oscar-winning actress before a press junket, Robles smiled, shook hands and made the rounds in a crowded room of media and public relations professionals.
"We were doing some TV interviews earlier," said the gregarious 23-year-old with a grin from ear to ear. "This is all pretty new to me, you know? New York City? TV interviews? Makeup artists? I'll be honest, it's pretty cool. I'm having a lot of fun with all of it."
She might have to get used to the bright lights and the attention. Robles, a dynamo personality whose positive energy could lift even the sourest of grapes, is considered a favorite to medal in London this summer. Her story is incredibly unique for Olympic athletes in the modern era.
Robles wasn't reared to someday wear the stars and stripes or compete in the Summer Games. This isn't one of those "She was destined to always do this," tales. Quite the opposite, actually. Hell, she didn't even lift a weight until she was in high school.
A track and field star at San Jacinto High School in California, Robles briefly attended the University of Alabama before transferring to Arizona State on an athletic scholarship. Prior to the 2008 track season, Robles looked into local gyms in the Tempe, Ariz., area where she could work out.
After a simple Google search, she wound up at Performance One Advanced Sports Training in Mesa. While doing squats, she caught the eye of Joe Micela, a man who just happened to be on one of the leading weightlifting coaches in the country. What Micela saw amazed him, and four days later, he had Robles signed up for a local weightlifting competition in the area.
"Joe saw something in me. I put a lot of faith in him, and he put a lot of time and effort and faith in me. None of this happens if he doesn't steer me towards it at that age. It was the turning point."
Under Micela's wing, Robles accelerated on a fast track unlike many athletes we've ever seen before. She did so well in the local Arizona competition that she qualified for the junior nationals. A few months later, she finished second in the World Juniors.
Lifting her first weights competitively in 2008, she's now the top-ranked women's weightlifter in the country just four years later.
"I had to make a big life decision in college," Robles says on a rainy day in Manhattan. "I liked Arizona State and I loved throwing for the track team, but if I really wanted to make competitive weightlifting a reality, I had to dive in 100 percent. So I did."
Robles left behind her friends, her scholarship and her life as an athlete at sunny Arizona State and made the life-altering decision to train and study at the US Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan.
"Obviously, it was different than Arizona State, but I have no regrets."
In her first 18 months at Northern Michigan, she upped her Olympic lift numbers by 132 pounds. In the past two years, she's risen up the ranks even quicker. On March 8, less than four years after first competing, she qualified for the 2012 Olympic team.
"It's been an amazing run, but we're really just getting started," Robles notes. "I say 'we' because it's not just about me. It's a team effort. The coaches and all of the athletes; it's really a team effort. We're hoping to bring home the gold."
In addition to her relative lack of experience, Robles is unique because she competes with something known as Madelung's deformity, a forearm deformity resulting from a short and crooked ulna. As a result, she lifts with an immense amount of pain. The condition requires Robles to use warming creams and wear protective wrist wraps every time she competes.
"It's something I deal with," she says with a nod. "Hey, I'm going to the Olympics, and that's amazing. Pain or no pain; nothing's going to stop me from competing."
Robles beams with positivity.
Everything out of her mouth comes with a smile or sarcastic line. Like so many other 23-year-old women, she likes TV shows such as "Modern Family" and "American Idol" and enjoys texting friends. And though the stereotype surrounding women's weightlifters wouldn't suggest it, she likes being pampered.
"I got makeup done today. Hair. I love manicures and pedicures. I shouldn't get too used to this treatment, but I'm not complaining," she says with a giant smile.
She's also not complaining about having her best friend in her corner this summer. As part of Procter and Gamble's "Thank You, Mom" campaign, Robles' mother, Joy, will be traveling to London to watch her compete. Joy has never seen her daughter compete at this level. "We've been incredibly blessed by the P&G folks. They're contributing funds to help her and so many other mothers of Olympians travel. At first, we thought only a few of our family members would be able to make it. We couldn't afford everyone to attend. But now she'll be able to come, too. It's incredible."
Robles is incredible. A ray of light, she could be the story worth following in London this summer. Her goal is Olympic gold, but she hopes to do so much more.
"Five years ago, if you told me I was going to the Olympics — in weightlifting, no less — I would have told you that you were crazy. But here I am, representing my country in the Summer Games. I hope girls across the country see me competing, hear my story and give the sport a shot."
They couldn't ask for a better role model.
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