Sarah Robles: The strongest woman in America lives on $400 a month

Meet Sarah Robles. She can lift as much as 570 pounds. In last year's weightlifting world championships, she bested every other American—both female and male. Sarah Robles is going to the Olympics in London this summer. But at home, in the United States, she lives on $400 a month.

Track star Lolo Jones, 29, soccer player Alex Morgan, 22, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 29, are natural television stars with camera-friendly good looks and slim, muscular figures. But women weightlifters aren't go-tos when Sports Illustrated is looking for athletes to model body paint in the swimsuit issue. They don’t collaborate with Cole Haan on accessories lines and sit next to Anna Wintour at Fashion Week, like tennis beauty Maria Sharapova. And male weightlifters often get their sponsorships from supplements or diet pills, because their buff, ripped bodies align with male beauty ideals. Men on diet pills want to look like weightlifters — most women would rather not.

Meanwhile, Robles — whose rigorous training schedule leaves her little time for outside work — struggles to pay for food. It would be hard enough for the average person to live off the $400 a month she receives from U.S.A. Weightlifting, but it’s especially difficult for someone who consumes 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, a goal she meets through several daily servings of grains, meats and vegetables, along with weekly pizza nights. She also gets discounted groceries from food banks and donations from her coach, family and friends — or, as Robles says, “prayers and pity.”

She's not alone. Holley Mangold, the other American woman who'll be doing Olympic weightlifting in the same division, works part-time for a BBQ restaurant and lives in a friend's converted laundry room.

In fact, while the biggest stars in the most-watched events can pick up million-dollar endorsement deals, the truth is that most Olympic athletes live on extremely modest incomes. That's especially true in countries like Canada, which lacks the kind of government support system you find in places like China and Russia, but also lacks the plethora of large and small private endorsement deals that are available to some (but not all) American Olympians.

I think this is interesting. Every time the Olympics come up, I hear friends and talking heads alike arguing that the amateur athlete no longer exists. Everybody in the Olympics is really a professional and that makes it all less exciting—or so goes the conventional wisdom. The reality is that, for the most part, we're talking about people who make big sacrifices to be able to compete at a high level in a sport they're obsessed with for its own sake, not because they're getting rich. Sponsorships, rather than tainting the sport, do also help some athletes know where their next meal is coming from. After reading some of these articles, I think the vast majority of Olympic athletes probably fall squarely into Happy Mutant territory.

Read the rest of Buzzfeed's profile of Sarah Robles

• Read the New York Times' profile of weightlifter Holley Mangold
• Ivestopedia: Olympic Athletes—Back to Reality
• Wired: Olympic Runner Fights to Change Sponsorship Rules
• ABC News: How Can Olympic Athletes Find a Real Job?
• Time Magazine: Keeping Afloat (which contrasts the profits of the U.S. Olympic Committee with the small incomes that support many Olympic athletes)


  1. We need a Kickstarter or Indiegogo project for Sarah & others in her position. I’d gladly contribute a modest sum to keep her in high-protein groceries. $400 per month is a disgrace. You want to start it, or you want me to?  We need a video appeal and some content to get started. This simply should not be happening.

      1. I hear your point. At the same time, Sarah Robles has a clear-cut goal, and has demonstrated both the remarkable talent and the drive necessary to achieve that goal, meaning, she is a particularly easy person to help. 

        Affecting a long term change in the living standard of a random-ass poor family is a much more complicated endeavor.  It is unsurprising that, when contributing $10 to a cause, people might want to go with what gives the most immediate and obvious return.

        This isn’t anything to get overly cynical about; there is a lot of good to get done in the world and squabbling over which good is best isn’t actually helping any of them.

        1. So, maybe my first comment was a little quickly thrown off.

          So, yeah, I totally understand why people have this reaction (the bullied bus monitor of last is a similar case).  You definitely get a bigger warm fuzzy feeling of having helped someone with a face and good story (though I’m not sure that constitutes a “return” in the true sense.)
          But that’s the main issue actually.  Everyone throwing $5 or $10 at a single case of a systemic problem arguably makes it worse in the long run.  So, you help one notable person, but in four years there’s going to be another handful of people who don’t get Buzzfeed/Boing Boing write-ups who still have to scrape by because there is no system in place to support athletes in un-glamorous sports.  And those people who were moved by the issue now already feel like they’ve done their bit.

          And, on the other hand, yes, we absolutely should squabble about which ills get addressed.  Because as a society, we have limited resources and not every problem is equally important.  Systemic poverty is considerably bigger than a single poor person, however talented she may be.

          1. I agree in so much as we have state and national governments whose entire job consists of effectively prioritizing the nation’s collective spending. On this scale, collective good, such as increased access to education or job training should trump individual athlete sponsorship every time (also pet projects, prisons, and pork for that matter). 

            However, on my last hand, when it comes to personal charitable donations, I am okay with each person giving as they wilt. Especially as the circumstances in which $10 will be effective – a really limited, narrowly defined goal, are often different to those in which tens of millions would be required.

          2.  I agree entirely with your analysis: we really ought to debate where money should go first, then second, then third — and hopefully we can arrive at some sort of rough consensus based on common values.  Maybe.

            But the thing that galls me is that were our society not so incredibly skewed toward the rich, this debate would be superfluous.   The 1000 richest people in America easily have enough PERSONAL wealth to lift the 50 million poorest out of poverty.   They could do it tomorrow.   And they would STILL be the 1000 richest people in America afterwards.

            But they won’t.  Nor will they do it the next day.  And so instead those of us who are barely scraping by will need to try to figure out how we can scape by on just a little less so that we can at least try to help those who aren’t making it at all.

  2. Interesting that it mentions Holley Mangold, but not the fact that her brother is Nick Mangold of the NY Jets who has a pretty hefty salary. Yet his sister lives in a laundry room?

    1. Exactly what I was thinking, her brother just signed a $54,000,000 contract, is their relationship seriously that bad?

    2.  Holley Mangold sounds like a fun person.  She digs video games, played offensive line on her high school football team, is pursuing a triple major in theology, sociology and philosophy when she goes back to college, and makes self-deprecating wisecracks about not getting a tattoo because“fat girls” should not get the Olympic rings “tramp-stamped” on their backs.  

      Her brother Nick won’t even be going to see her compete in London, ostensibly because it’s during preseason practice.  Jets coach Rex Ryan was “shocked” by that, and said he’s going to strongly encourage Nick to miss a couple days and go see his sister compete.  Nick did say that’d he’d find a way to watch it on TV though.  :-/  So yeah, sounds like there might be a mild degree of sibling estrangement going on there.

  3. So she’s the strongest ATHLETE in America, right? If she beat both American men and women, then she’s not only the strongest women, she’s the strongest American. Period.

    1. No.  She beats other American women.  She doesn’t even come close to American men, who can just pwn the everloving shit out of her totals.  There are guys who oly lift for fun who can do significantly more than her.

  4. “she bested every other American—both female and male”

    This is only true if you are being highly deceptive.  The heaviest women’s weight class is 75+ kg.  Robles weighed 118.42 kg.  There was only one male athlete from the usa that was in a weight class lower than 75 kg.  This was Barnes Lamar. he weighed 55.25 kg.  Robles lifted more than Lamar…but only Lamar.  Every other USA male athlete that competed lifted more than Robles.  This includes
    – VAUGHN Chad Thomas weighing  76 kg
    – FARRIS Kendrick weighing  84kg
    – KRYCH Zachary Joseph  weighing 84 kg

    So Robles lifts better than ONE male athlete, that she weighs twice as much as… and she is now the best weight lifter in the USA?  

    A more truthful statement would be she lifted better than every male competitor at or below he weight class, which although still deceptive is actually true.

    1. I think the confusion comes from Buzzfeed’s statement that she’s the highest ranked weightlifter in the USA, which is not actually the same thing as being the strongest.  I could be wrong, but hey.

  5. You know, I’ve never really understood why anyone would care whether an athelete was amateur or professional…

  6. While part of me feels a little bad for  Ms.Robles and her $400 a month, I feel considerably more outrage regarding Michael Phelps and his millions of dollars in endorsements earned because he swims real good.

    I don’t think amateur athletes deserve considerable compensation.  Or rather, while I think regular exercise and an active lifestyle is probably a very important part of staying healthy, I don’t think younger people should focus disproportionately on athletics at the expense of academics, nor do I think a disproportionate amount of resources should be directed towards them.  There’s probably more than a few people out there earning $400 a month doing incredible things that we’ll never even hear about for lack of an equivalent public forum.

    1. You try flinging 106 kilograms over your head in a single explosive movement, then you can come back and make comments about `incredible things’.

    2. What makes you qualified to tell other people whether their pursuit is worthy of resources? You may argue that athletes don’t produce anything useful through their efforts, but that’s equally true for many fields of academics (and I say that as a Math PhD student who could certainly be accused of being in that category). 

      1. Well, won’t having a math PhD make you desirable to potential employers?  [Which is not to say that making oneself desirable to employers is the only reason for doing anything; I’m just sayin’.]

  7. I’ve represented the US in international competition in an obscure sport.  In addition to the expense and effort of  training for years, buying my own equipment, paying for coaching, and paying for medical expenses (I was injured twice), I had to pay all of my competition expenses, including travel/lodging/food/etc.  This is typical — everyone who’s not in a marquee sport, and even some of those who are but aren’t medal favorites, will burn through a lot of cash just to make it to the start, just to have a chance.  And as you might expect, some very, very talented athletes never get there, not because of lack of  drive or effort, but because the money runs out.   Others go so deep into debt that they spend the next decade trying to claw their way out.

    For every Mary Lou Retton, Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong or Kimmie Meisner, there are a thousand other athletes who just weren’t as lucky.

  8. In a society that throws hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars annually at Hollywood starlets, swimsuit models, porn stars, talentless-but-sexy pop stars, strippers, escorts, and hot tennis stars, I’d be more than happy to throw a couple of bucks in the direction of a woman whom I admire for her strength, passion, and courage to buck society’s conceptions of what constitutes an awesome woman. This is why I read BB.

  9. And male weightlifters often get their sponsorships from supplements or diet pills, because their buff, ripped bodies align with male beauty ideals. Men on diet pills want to look like weightlifters — most women would rather not.

    Just to point out something here.
    Olympic style weight lifting, or weight lifting as a sport in general does NOT give you a body like that on the front of Muscle magazine or Arnold or Ronnie Coleman.

    Strongmen and top tier weight lifters are strong as can be, but they are not ripped.  You might see one near %15 body fat, but really it’s probably going to be higher than that.

    Not saying that strongmen/women don’t get the occasional sponsorship, but it isn’t because they have chiseled abs and awesome arms.

    1.  I was thinking the same thing. Power-lifters are all pretty barrel-shaped people. The lifestyle difference and appearance difference between them and bodybuilders is shaped by the goal. Bodybuilders want to look, to an ignorant lay-person, like they could do what actual lifters are capable of doing.

      The sport I sometimes enjoy watching is the insane world of Strongman competitions. The body types there seem like a hybrid between the more cut/defined arms of builders and the squat torso-heavy build of lifters. The focus on reps probably gets them more cut up.

  10. I am against providing funding for any athletes while schools have to hold bake sales to buy textbooks and people go without health insurance. If this is her passion I wish her all the luck in the world. She seems to have a real gift. However funding sports will always come behind providing children with a decent education or sick people with the drugs they need to live. If she doesn’t want to live on 400 dollars a month she could get a job doing something else. Perhaps coaching?

  11. There’s something very sad, sick and wrong about the number of people who are trolling (or trying to troll) this thread–I can just guess from the context the sort of thing that was actually said. And, you know, there aren’t nearly as many people in space-related post threads saying that we shouldn’t be spending all that money on space exploration when there’s hunger and homelessness on earth, even though the space program costs much, much more than sending athletes to the Games.

    Sarah Robles is a dedicated, lovely young lady who deserves way more support than she’s getting, here or elsewhere. I wish her the best in London.

  12. The Olympics are an anachronistic form of entertainment that is unnecessary and the economic rewards of training to be an “Olympian” follows this logic. It is nothing more than entertainment for viewers, even as it represents personal bests for the performers involved. Why does it surprise anyone that this athlete is paid so little? There are no jobs that require her to perform 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week lifting giant weights… other than perhaps moving furniture.

    1. OK, but you just described the arts as well. We both may see more value in the arts than in athletic competition, but not everyone does.

      I’m not particularly interested in the Olympics and I don’t care at all about other sports, but I do admire athletes like this one (not so much the multimillionaire professionals). As a society we’ve more or less moved past the point where great athletic skill or great strength are necessary, like you say, so what they’re doing is essentially an art, and one that a lot of people do care about and admire.

      That’s not really an argument for paying her more than what she makes – she’s not entitled to it, just like obscure artists aren’t entitled to a steady paycheck – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to admire about what she does, and it doesn’t mean there isn’t any value to society in athletes like this. 

      1. Art usually doesn’t wreck havoc with the local economy and doesn’t foster corruption, tax cheating, bullying of citizens not willing to sale, massive tax subsidies by providing resources paid for by the citizens and insane laws. 

  13. They featured Holley on Hard Knocks, and you can see the resentment in Nick’s face when they interact. MTV also did a TrueLife about her, and he was less then thrilled. I think he is probably embarrassed by his gargantuan sister. Growing up, she most likely tagged along, and made him self aware for her, bc she apparently is a very free strong spirit.

    1. Inventing a narrative.

      We all do, of course, but as far as I know of the case, we don’t know anything at all besides the bare facts. 

      I’ve seen “free strong spirits” and “people who seem like fun” do really shitty things to their next of kin.  And of course much more stupid (to outside observers) reasons for siblings not interacting which each other.

      Again: All we know is that he doesn’t want to watch her lift some weights.  I’d simply leave to at that.

  14. I don’t recollect whether it has been here or on Metafilter that I’ve read a similar thread or two, but it’s the dissimilarity that strikes me most: generally, when a group of people start commenting on weightlifters, it seems reasonable to state that a significant portion of them do not think very highly of a person who engages in the activity.  One might say that they feel free to heap abuse on them. 

    And generally, the people who are discussed engaging in weightlifting are men.  Is it because Robles is a woman that she receives such a warm reception (which, IMO, she deserves, I should note).

    Anyhow, if anyone wants to get all sociological on some forum and post anti-stereotypical stories to see whether the polarity of comments flips on those as well, I’ll be tickled pink if I’m able to locate them.

  15. If you read biographies of some of the bicyclists that have won the Tour de France, they live pretty much the same way. Anyone that is in one of the less popular sports is living on a friend’s couch, eating ramen noodles, and training non-stop. Sarah Robles seems like a great role model, but she is on one of those sports that just does not get the attention. Certainly it doesn’t help that she doesn’t fit the stereotype of beauty – beach volleyball got popular pretty fast! – but I doubt the archery team is rolling in sponsorships either. My guess is that about 90% of the Olympic athletes live like her.

    1. Sarah Robles seems like a great role model

      In the sense of doing what you love despite what others think about it/how much benefit it brings to others/its financial consequences? I suppose it’s a fair point to make, but would it not equally apply to, say, drug addicts? I’m all for people pursuing whatever it is they love, to hell with what everyone else thinks. I do not, however, see it as something to be admired or emulated. Indeed, if you have a role model, are you not giving up some of the “for myself and no one else”-ness?

  16. I feel bad for anyone living on $400 in US,  but let’s for a second assume that sports serve no purpose in society, other than entertainment, and what she does, not a lot of people would pay to see:

    so, she can lift more than anyone else… and thus she should have an income based on that?

    How about, parallel to her training, learning a trade to maintain herself in this cruel currency based world?

    Hey I wanna be a novelist, musician and a film maker, but you know what, PHP, JS  & MYSQL help nicely to maintain a lifestyle, whilst I do some of these in my spare time and keep rest on the back burner.

    I don’t think ones who taken the risk to ‘do what they love’ to maintain themselves should cry about it if it goes pear shaped.

    1. I don’t know. I gave up all of my dreams and my passion to make money. Now I make money. Some nights I think pretty seriously about suicide. It might not be worth it, you know, to live pointlessly just for the sake of staying alive with nothing you value in your life. Just sayin’

      1. I haven’t had a job with fixed hours in 16 years. Money’s incredibly convenient, but it can’t make you happy. Make a two-year plan and at the end of the two years, quit and do something more interesting.

  17. Interesting discussion.  Why can’t someone (I’m not smart enough) create a simple online matching system, whereby people can help these athletes if they see fit?  Then, we wouldn’t have to debate the value of a weightlifter vs. a math Ph.D., or whatever.   U.S. Olympic Committee, via facebook? 

  18. Who would you suggest fund these athletes? Why should we fund these athletes? Why don’t you fund Starcraft players? No reason,  other than traditionally you’ve placed emphasis on Olympic athletes.

  19. Psych,
    Not sure if you’re replying to me, but … I wouldn’t suggest anyone fund these athletes, or do anything else with their money (though some causes are objectively better than others, clearly).  I merely suggest a matching system, where people who WANT to help, can.  As I suggested, it’s got nothing to do with the relative merit of what they do. 

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