Olympian Sarah Robles raises the bar for plus-size women

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Sally Peterson for TIME

Sarah Robles can hoist 321 lb. over her head. She is on her way to the London Olympics as the top-ranked female weight lifter in the U.S. She is one of the world's strongest women. Yet there are times when Robles, 23, imagines what people are thinking when they pass her on the street, and it has nothing to do with her power, her flexibility, her tenacity. This is what she hears them thinking instead: You're fat. You're lazy. You're gluttonous. You're excessive.

That's why Robles, who is 5 ft. 10 in. and weighs 275 lb., is chasing much more than a medal in London. She's on a mission to change how people perceive larger women--and how larger women and girls perceive themselves. "Embracing your body," says Robles, "will lift you to new heights."

We think we know what an Olympian looks like. An Olympian is a ripped and sinewy runner, or she's a swimmer with a six-pack, or she's a tiny, turbocharged gymnast. Robles and her fellow weight lifters, as well as other elite power athletes like shot putters and discus throwers, don't often fit that mold. "Just because I'm bigger than you doesn't mean I'm not healthy," she says. "My blood work is fine. You know, I've seen a lot of people that look better than me, but you see them in the gym, and you're like"--she makes a dismissive pssssss--"Is this your first time here?"

Robles wants heavy girls to see a big woman excelling in athletics. She wants them to know about sports in which their size is a definite advantage, such as weight lifting and track-and-field throwing events. Americans are accustomed to bulky guys' earning fat NFL paychecks; high school coaches can put their biggest boys on the offensive line. But football isn't an option for young women. (A rare exception is Robles' fellow U.S. Olympic lifter Holley Mangold, who played high school football in Ohio and is the younger sister of the New York Jets' Nick Mangold.)

Growing up in California's Inland Empire, Robles was always the biggest kid in class. She was bullied; other kids hit her, mooed at her, asked her when the baby was due. Worse, some family members hurt her self-confidence too. She remembers her grandfather glancing at two obese diners at a restaurant. "Look at those two heifers eating," he said. She was crushed. "I'm like, 'I'm a big person too. What does my own grandfather think about me?'"

In junior high, a gym teacher spotted her agility and asked her to join the track team to throw the discus, launching her athletic career. Robles won a track-and-field scholarship to the University of Alabama before switching schools and sports; she wound up lifting at Northern Michigan University. These days, she's so focused that ahead of the U.S. Olympic trials, she unfriended her teammates on Facebook. But she still feels the self-consciousness that was ingrained in her during her early years. She hates shopping for clothes. When we met in New York City, she was wearing an extra-large men's button-down shirt and was not pleased about it. "Sometimes I'm like, 'Ugh, I can't get good clothes to fit. This sucks. I'm so fat.' I have to think, 'O.K., Sarah, remember what you're trying to preach to other people. Remember that about yourself. You are fine. You are pretty. Buy bigger clothes. What's the big deal?'"

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