Why Sarah Robles Should Lift and You Should Be Angry
In the gym, surrounded by others, but stranded alone on the island that is her platform. This loneliness can be somber and cold, but it may also be the most freeing position in the world. Just a girl with a steel barbell, loaded with weights. Manipulating the levers of the human body in an effort to defy gravity rep by rep and propel a weighted steel object over her head. An object that could kill the untrained in the flash of an eye. Instead it kills the athlete slowly, digging them deeper into a hole of their own dreams. It comes in torn callouses; aching knees; impinged hips; bulging discs; twinging shoulders.
The longer you defy death, the stronger you become, but at a cost of time. You cannot cheat it forever. For this reason you cannot be wasteful in the time you are allotted. Training may be a marathon, but opportunity cannot be ignored when it knocks. There may be a tomorrow. But it also may never come.
She embraces the grind; the mundane consistency required in order to prepare for a singular moment of excellence. The sacrifice comes in time away from other endeavours, perhaps family, friends, and, often overlooked, finances. Training is rarely a profitable enterprise, though this seems to be changing. More than this, the ability to travel to qualification events simply doesn’t materialize from the ether. The tickets are booked, the room reserved, and the hour is approaching. Upon landing however, she is informed that there have been some changes. What was originally designated an “end-all-be-all” showdown now has some new exceptions. Success here, may not mean attainment of the original goal. Unphased, she performs and excels, securing a newly unsecured spot on the World Team. Good, but not safe.
With five weeks to prepare, a training program must resume in order to replicate a peaked performance. Another ticket must be booked, another room reserved. Less time spent in preparation for the ultimate goal now, instead a period of uncertainty. A sort of weightlifting purgatory. Ignoring these circumstances, she repeats and secures her fate. This brave young woman is going to the World Weightlifting Championships. She did it. Not once, but twice damnit. A sigh of relief accompanies her fulfillment. It is now time to prepare to represent her country on the penultimate competitive stage.
And then, the phone rings. “Sorry dear, but we need you to stay home.”
The preceding is a bit dramatic and takes a great deal of poetic license on my part. But I feel we cannot ignore the efforts great athletes make every day in the sport of weightlifting and the obstacles they overcome. This isn’t about Marissa or Sarah. This about the sacrifices all athletes make everyday and the arrogance of others who take that for granted.
In case you missed it, it would appear that Sarah Robles has been made an alternate for the Women’s World Team via a secret meeting and vote held by the Board of Directors. Despite the fact that the original and even revised qualification periods don’t allow Sarah’s recent totals to be counted for consideration, this detail seems to have been ignored, and a number of athletes in line appear to have been leap frogged. She shouldn’t be eligible to be an alternate on the World Team. The current world rankings as publicly listed by the USAW do not reflect this new ranking.
But fortunately we have new t-shirts that do.
Referring to the Athlete Handbook, which has not been updated since 2014, reflects this clause under Athlete Selection and Qualification.
There currently exists no clause that overrides the above. Which makes this all very puzzling. Marissa has publicly stated that her coach received a call from USAW CEO Michael Massick informing them of the Board’s decision to make Sarah an alternate. Furthermore he suggested that Marissa consider giving up her spot in order to allow Sarah to compete in her stead. After giving some time for consideration, this call was followed by another stating that regardless of Marissa’s decision, she will be scratched from competition and Sarah will be made eligible. If these statements are true, if the CEO of our national governing body really believes that this is a way to treat an athlete who earned the right to be compete internationally, then I can’t say I support his continued employment. This treatment is not becoming of someone deserves our confidence and trust to guide the sport into the future.
Most troubling, is the absence of board minutes for this alleged secret meeting, in which sources indicated a vote of 6-2 decided in favor of moving Sarah into an alternate spot. As a nonprofit corporation, laws dictate that this information must be publicly disclosed. At this point, what is taking place within the organization is not plain incompetence, but teeters over into criminal territory.
Can we, as the membership base, allow a body to violate its own bylaws, without public statement or explanation for the violation of these bylaws? My answer would be no, and this offense of withholding information justifies dismissal from duty. Allowing this action to carry on with impunity sets a dangerous precedent.
The issue I’ve discussed so far is one of procedure, incompetence, and inconsistency in the decision making process that affects the lives of real human beings. This isn’t about pitting Marissa against Sarah, but about recognizing who is responsible for putting these great athletes into such a difficult position. I have not at any point suggested that Sarah Robles does not deserve to be on the World Team. That would be stupid. For those new to weightlifting, Sarah is a London Olympian and damn fine weightlifter. Her recent totals do in fact put her at the head of the rankings, and if I’m not mistaken she currently has the third highest total in the world for 2015 in the 75kg+ class. Then why wasn’t she automatically ranked on the team? That sounds crazy. Well here’s why.
Per USADAs website. But Sean, wasn’t it just DHEA? That could be filed under Anabolic Androgenic Steroid right? No. It couldn’t. Because that’s a completely different compound. But in case you’re not sure, here’s the sanction detailed from the IWF, itemizing the substances.
The most unfortunate part of this was that these were testing results from the Pan American Championships where Sarah took gold. This cost the ladies some team points which made spots for the Pan American Games limited. This drug suspension kept Sarah from competing at the National Championships, which were supposed to be the final qualifier for World selection. As we now know, they were not the final qualifier it was decided that Sarah would still not be allowed to compete in the “Final” World Team Trials. Sarah has served her sentence and since been tested at least three times in 2015. She’s done her time, continues to excel as an athlete, and is adhering to the rules.
Furthermore, Team USA needs Sarah Robles. As it stands, the US Women have only earned 51 team points at the 2014 World Championships. It is projected, that in order to attain 3 spots for our women at the Rio Olympics, Team USA will have to score a total of 110-120 points. At 51 points, the women must earn at least 59 points at the 2015 Worlds. To put it gently, we are behind pace, and Sarah represents a huge boost in our potential to send 3 women to the Olympics, something everybody wants.
If that’s not argument enough, if the US women don’t earn 3 spots, they will likely be left to earn 1 through continental qualification, which means that barring serious injury, or another drug sanction, there is a very high probability that Sarah Robles will be filling that sole spot.
Culturally, Americans appear sensitive to the idea of “unfairness” in sport. We want thorough drug testing, everyone on a level playing field, no one under inflating footballs, etc. We like the idea, especially in the amateur athlete domain, that hard work alone will define success. But sport, not unlike war, is unfair by nature. There will always be superiorly gifted athletes, or those with better access to modalities that improve their performance. The very existence of the United States repeated success in olympic sport is as much affirmation of our economic dominance as it is our athletic prowess. It is inherently unfair that Marissa played by the rules and still won’t get credit for her hard work. But we don’t stand out by the podium saying it’s unfair that Ilya Ilyin is just that much better than everyone else. That’s sport. You don’t win with fair, and yet the American public is very supportive of winning.
Despite knowledge well in advance of when Sarah’s drug suspension would be up, no provisions were made to include her in qualification events for 2015. It was easy to predict exactly when she’d be eligible to compete, and not too difficult to scout what kind of shape she was in. Anyone with an Instagram could’ve had a rough idea. It was also not difficult to calculate that she could forge her own way to the Olympics by qualifying for a Grand Prix event and the 2016 Pan American Championships.
It is entirely understandable that the intricacies of running a body such as the USAW may be overwhelming, and oversights can occur. If the Board had come out and and publicly overridden their own qualification procedures, presenting a strong argument about why this is the best thing for Team USA, that would be a very different story. But instead they chose to conduct these matters in secret and hide in the face of questioning. That’s what cowards do. And cowards should not be leading our sport.
How do we prevent this mess from happening again? The USAW has grown exponentially the past few years and with growth comes pains from unseen complications. There have been a lot of improvements made to the structure of the organization, particularly in regards to Athlete Support and employing an outstanding event manager in Phil Andrews. However, if this sport is expected to thrive, further changes must be made beginning with a restructuring of the board and several important positions such as HPD and CEO. Performing these duties require a lot of work and effort and I think provisions should be made to compensate those filling these positions so that they more exclusively focus on said duties.
A tax audit from 2013 shows that the USAW appears to spend a mere $36,494 on “Governance”. I don’t know if this figure is still relevant but it is grossly underfunded if that is the case. Being in a Board member for a several million dollar corporation should be an actual job, and the compensation should reflect such.
A National Calendar, something you will find in many other sports, should be established well in advance to better organize ahead and prevent issues like this or the 900+ athletes currently registered for the American Open. We have 15 men and women preparing to take stage in Houston in three weeks or so who don’t even know how we’re going to pick athletes for the Olympic Team.
Although further bureaucracy could be crippling, the creation of an independent oversight committee could lend a sense of accountability to the governing body that doesn’t currently exist. Something such as an athlete and coaches union could serve to strike balance between interests. Exploring other means to improve the governing bother escapes the scope of this already lengthy discourse.
We as a membership can choose to settle for a gradual regression into mediocrity or we can do the things necessary to solidify the future of this sports success. I can do nothing but train on my platform and write these words in hopes that I challenge all of you to action for the sport we love.