The strongest woman in America holds a plastic fork against her forehead.
She wrinkles her brow and the fork folds into a crease. She smiles and holds out her hands — ta-da! — as the fork remains literally stuck inside her head.
“I have a huge forehead wrinkle,” says Sarah Robles with a laugh. “This is real life.”
The strongest woman in America loves her forehead. She loves the female weightlifter tattoo on her right biceps. She loves that she can lift major appliances while wearing a fancy black striped headband, flowery kneepads and shiny earrings.
She’s 5 feet 10, 315 pounds, and she loves every inch of herself. She loves the independence that comes from her size, and the power that comes from strength, which earned her an Olympic bronze medal earlier this week in the super-heavyweight division. It was America’s first weightlifting medal of any sort in 16 years.
“I didn’t have to conform my body or my ideals or my looks to get where I am,” she says. “I have a bronze medal and I was able to be myself, embrace my body, do the things I’m naturally fitted to do to help make my dreams come true.”
She hopes little girls everywhere are listening. She hopes all those Olympic fans who love the tiny gymnasts and sleek swimmers are watching. She hopes potential sponsors who are interested only in athletes of a certain body type understand.
“To challenge ‘normal’ ideals is an important thing,” she says. “It’s cool to be me. I’m big and strong and putting it all for good use.”
After being dominated by conventional stars the first week, the U.S Olympic efforts the last few days have wonderfully included two large women who throw, lift and teach.
On Friday, Michelle Carter became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the shot put. She is far more than an athlete; she is a beacon for women of all shapes, a 5-foot-9, 256-pound makeup artist known as the Shot Diva who runs a sports confidence camp for young female throwers.
“I just encourage young girls to be true to themselves,” Carter said after the victory. “I’m in a sport that people don’t look at us like women. They don’t look at us being girly or feminine. But I’ve been girly all my life. I couldn’t separate the two between the sport and being a woman.”
On Sunday, with a roar and a fist pump, Robles won a bronze by lifting 277.8 pounds in the snatch and 352.7 pounds in the clean and jerk. In other words, she picked up a roll-top desk and a three-seated couch.
“I feel awesome!” she says in a Monday afternoon interview on a picnic table outside the media center. “I feel like I can flip a car over! I feel like I can run through a house!”
It is that sense of empowerment that has enriched these two marvelous athletic performances. Carter, who has posed for ESPN’s Body Issue, regularly counsels questioning young women on the coolness of muscles. Robles responds to notes from girls who are being bullied for their size.
“These Olympians are using the podium to promote a positive message,” says Abigail Saguy, professor of sociology at UCLA and author of the book “What’s Wrong With Fat?” “They are making an important point that health comes at all sizes, and we should be embracing diversity of body sizes rather than assume there’s one good body type.”
Robles, 28, has epitomized that point from the moment she engaged in her last fight. It was in elementary school in her hometown of Desert Hot Springs. A girl called her fat and hit her in the face. She knew she had to figure out a way to fight back, and ultimately she did that by loving herself and embracing her now historic strengths.
“I got bullied as a kid, and one of my motivations is to not let anyone else feel the way I felt about me,” she says. “No one should have to hate themselves, doubt their abilities, change what they like or who they are. If I can be another voice of reason and kindness to help silence everyone else who says something negative about you, that’s a good thing.”
Not that Robles’ voice has always been easy to find. A year after finishing seventh in the London Olympics, she was given a two-year suspension after testing positive for a hormonal precursor supplement. She said she was taking the drug to treat polycystic ovary syndrome, but her protest was denied and her career fell apart.
She was thrown out of her gym, lost her training partners, and wound up driving around Phoenix with her barbell in the back of her car, enlisting in free one-week tryout periods at various health clubs. She was on food stamps and living on friends’ couches and figuring she would never see another Olympics.
“I was kind of shunned,” she says. “I had to learn the hard way. It was a difficult ride.”
She eventually moved to Houston to train in the garage of nationally renowned coach Tim Swords where she regained her strength, passed every drug test, and now openly explains her suspension as a lesson learned.
“I made a decision to try to tend to my health issues. I had legitimate reasons. I still should have done things different but I didn’t,” she says. “I’ve since served my time, I passed my tests, I’ve done everything I need to do to redeem myself and to move on.”
After her Sunday redemption, she showed up for her Monday interview with her bronze medal in her pocket, where she put it almost immediately after the podium ceremony, even initially hiding it during the post-event news conference. She doesn’t wear medals, ever, because she doesn’t want to cast a shadow on any losing competitors who worked just as hard.
“I don’t know whether that sounds bad or dumb,” says the strongest woman in America.
On the contrary, like the things Sarah Robles and Michelle Carter represent, it just sounds strong.