Ending Team USA’s 10-year medal drought at the weightlifting world championships could depend largely on Sarah Robles, the team’s 27-year-old star.
But executing a nearly 350-pound clean and jerk at this week’s world championships in Houston isn’t the only test facing her. “Is she clean?” asks Dennis Snethen, a veteran weightlifting coach and former president of USA Weightlifting, the sport’s governing body.
It isn’t just that Robles tested positive two years ago for an anabolic steroid and/or its metabolites. It’s that her two-year suspension ended only in August, meaning she didn’t participate in the drug-tested meets that served as qualifiers for this month’s worlds. In a controversial move, USA Weightlifting recently voted her onto the team, essentially displacing two less-accomplished athletes who believed they had qualified for the championships.
“What USA Weightlifting did is morally wrong, it’s unethical,” says Caitlin Hogan, a CrossFit star-turned-weightlifter whose coach filed a grievance with USA Weightlifting and the U.S. Olympic Committee, arguing that Hogan’s spot on the team was wrongly given to Robles.
Robles vows to vindicate—in the drug-testing lab and on the mat—U.S. Weightlifting’s decision to place her on the team. “I’m clean,” Robles said, saying that she participated in out-of-competition drug testing throughout her suspension. Looking ahead to her competition next week, she said: “Third place is attainable for me. Second or higher, I’m not so sure.”
America is a weakling on the world weightlifting stage. No American woman has won an Olympic weightlifting medal since 2000, no American man since the 1984 Games, which the Soviet Union boycotted. Not since 2005 has an American woman won a world championship medal; for men, the last one came in 1997.
But decades ago, America dominated the sport, and some now profess to see signs of a CrossFit-inspired renaissance. A workout regimen that has become a full-fledged movement, CrossFit emphasizes the two Olympic lifts, known as the snatch and the clean and jerk. As CrossFit has engendered interest in Olympic-style competitions, membership in USA Weightlifting has exploded. One newcomer is Hogan, a CrossFit competitor who, within six months of entering Waxman’s Gym in Los Angeles in search of coaching, won a silver medal at the U.S. weightlifting nationals in August. “Caitlin is the CrossFit effect,” says her coach, Sean Waxman.
The first step toward an Olympic comeback for America would be to earn spots at the Games for something resembling a full-sized team. The maximum number allowed is 10, yet only three American weightlifters qualified for the 2012 Games. Because slots are earned on a points basis, Robles could help Team USA even if she finishes seventh at the worlds, as she did at the 2012 London Games.
To get Robles onto the nine-women world championship team, USA Weightlifting awarded her an alternate spot that Waxman argues belonged to Hogan. Alternates typically don’t compete. But USA Weightlifting made clear that it intends to substitute Robles for Marissa Klingseis, who qualified as a fully-fledged team member, says Snethen, Klingseis’ coach. USA Weightlifting declined to respond to requests for comment.
Snethen said that after protesting, he reached a settlement with USA Weightlifting that awarded Klingseis a uniform and reimbursement of some qualification expenses, among other things. By giving up her spot, Klingseis could conceivably increase her chances of making the Olympic team, if Robles earns enough points to help Team USA send a full contingent of four women weightlifters to Rio. “Giving up her spot could be a win for Marissa,” said Snethen, calling the veteran Robles a clearly superior lifter to his 20-year-old athlete. “Sarah is a medal contender, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.
Testing positive for a banned substance cost Robles her health insurance, sponsorship dollars and her coach, who issued a public statement suspending her from his training program. In an interview, Robles repeats what she said then, that a physician treating her for a hormonal imbalance recommended a widely available over-the-counter supplement that contained a banned substance. “It was a big mistake, a big pockmark,” she said. “I’m not proud of it.”
She acquired a new coach, Houston’s Tim Swords, under whom she recently posted some personal bests at a non-qualifying competition in September. “And that wasn’t really her best, because she’s lifted more than that in training,” said Swords, echoing her assertion that she has undergone regular drug testing.
To support herself, Robles holds jobs as a CrossFit instructor and veterinary-hospital receptionist, leaving her with about half the training time she had before testing positive. But that may be an advantage, in that it allows more time for recovery, she said. A former shot-putter who has played sports since childhood, Robles said it was difficult to train for two years without any impending competition. “The challenge was not getting bored, trying to stay motivated,” she said.
Boosting Robles’ confidence and her bank account, she recently won $9,000 at the 2015 CrossFit Liftoff competition, taking first place in the snatch, clean and jerk and weightlifting total. The male winner in those three categories was another member of weightlifting’s Team USA, Caine Wilkes.
Negotiations over Hogan’s grievance continued into Thursday. Had she been named an alternate, she said she understood she may not have competed. But earning a spot on a national world championship team is a serious credential for a fitness professional, said Hogan, a CrossFit instructor and former college hockey star who holds the record for most career goals at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.
Besides Robles, the most-watched American at the worlds will be C.J. Cummings, a 15-year-old South Carolinian who broke the U.S. record in his weight class at the nationals in August. Although not likely to medal, Cummings could break the world junior record, which would represent the biggest feat for an American weightlifter in years. “He’s the Michael Jordan of weightlifting in America,” said Snethen.
Courtesy of: Wall Street Journal