Just because Sarah Robles competes in a sport dominated by men, it doesn’t mean she wants to look like one.
But at 5-foot-10 and 270 pounds, America’s top-ranked weightlifter says she mostly wears workout clothes made for men because women’s athletic attire rarely comes in her size.
“I’m wearing a dude’s jacket right now. And a dude’s shirt. Dude’s sandals. A dude’s hat. I’ve got a dude’s watch. I’ve got a dude’s everything,” Robles said during a training session in London last week with coach Joe Micela.
On Sunday, she and U.S. teammate Holley Mangold competed in the women’s super heavyweight division. Robles finished 7th and Mangold 10th. Both say they hope the Olympic spotlight will give their sport more recognition in the U.S., which hasn’t won a weightlifting medal since 2000.
Robles, a 24-year-old Mesa resident, says the Olympics also give her a forum to encourage the fashion industry to make a greater variety of athletic clothes for plus-sized women.
It’s an issue she often discusses on her blog. In one posting, she recalled photo shoots with other Olympians where she had to put on men’s clothes because the women’s clothes provided didn’t come in her size. The men’s clothes were big enough, but didn’t fit very well.
“I don’t think I have a dude-shaped body,” Robles said, her laughter drowning in the clang of barbells crashing to the ground at the ExCeL center’s cavernous training hall.
“No, you don’t,” Micela assured her.
Robles said one of the misconceptions about weightlifting is that the sport will make women “look like a man or become a man somehow.”
“And that’s completely wrong. I think being strong and confident and doing what you love makes you more feminine because you are not afraid to be yourself,” she said.
For a long time, weightlifting was a man’s world. It was on the program of the first modern Olympics in 1896 but women weren’t allowed to compete until the Sydney Games in 2000.
In the U.S., the sport’s status has fallen since the 1950s when the United States was the world’s No. 1 weightlifting nation. Mangold, Robles and 85-kilogram lifter Kendrick Farris are the only Americans competing in London, with personal records far below the top-ranked lifters in their respective weight classes.
On her blog, Robles described the difficulty of finding sponsors on her road to the Olympics, and how she for a time was living on as little as $400 a month.
Her story resonated with Adrienne Smith, who plays wide receiver and quarterback in a football league for women. She started an online petition, with 47,000 signatures so far, calling on Nike to consider sponsoring Robles.
“I understand what it’s like to compete as a woman in a male-dominated sport,” Smith said. “In order to be taken seriously you have to excel at your sport. But there’s that added pressure of having to be beautiful and having to fit into this petite/feminine image.”
Robles said she now has a sponsor but doesn’t want to talk about it because athletes aren’t supposed to mention their private endorsements during the Olympics.
She said she agrees to “a certain extent” with Smith’s assertion that women competing in male-dominated sports often get overlooked by sponsors.
“I feel that in my sport, both genders are overlooked,” she said. “Would my chances be better if I were a male? Who’s to say?”
The question hung in the air for a few seconds before Micela answered: “As a heavyweight, yes.”