Weightlifting is not a tough-guy sport. Don't be fooled by the muscles and the grunting and the size of the athletes. High school football players take more chances than any world-class lifter because they buy into the reckless sports mentality of playing hurt that doesn't exist under the bar.
Lifters are taught from the first time in the gym that any strange feeling is a reason to stop, that it's too dangerous to be putting big weight over your head with a sore arm or a stiff back or a knee that feels like it might not hold up.
So, at the first sign of trouble, they're supposed to shut themselves down.
Except that wasn't really an option Saturday for Cheryl Haworth, not with where she was and what she needed to do.
Haworth felt something she wasn't worried about but was also terrified of on her first attempt at the 2004 Olympics. The elbow that had been rebuilt just 14 months ago popped as she threw 125 kilograms into the air as if it was a broomstick.
It just might have been the smoothest lift of the whole women's +75kg competition in Athens. And it seemed to scream to fans, coaches and mostly opponents at the Nikaia Weightlifting Center that Haworth was right back at the top of the tightly bunched weight class.
"When she threw that first one up there like there was nothing on the bar, I just knew we were set," said Michael Cohen, Haworth's coach on Team Savannah and at the Olympics. "We were going to light it up."
But before he even finished the thought, Haworth's Olympic flame went out.
And as soon as he saw Haworth's face, Cohen knew what she knew, which was nothing at the moment except that something had happened.
She heard it. She felt it. She could tell it wasn't good.
"All I knew," said Haworth, "is it hurt like hell."
And that was only the pain. The realization that quickly followed of what wasn't going to happen Saturday, that her grueling and remarkable comeback wouldn't get her close to a medal, was even worse.
And that's when most athletes and any weightlifter would have left.
But Haworth hasn't been just any lifter since the day she put her hands in chalk, and she wasn't again Saturday.
She figured it wasn't the wisest move to continue. But she wouldn't have been able to take it if she didn't, feeling she had responsibilities that outweighed the risk that she might aggravate the injury that almost ended her career.
She needed to post a total to help maintain USA Weightlifting's status for international competition.
She needed to finish the event to protect her own USOC funding that's based on performance.
But mostly, Haworth had to continue because of what not doing so might have done, the uncertainty of pulling out of her first major competition since her major injury quite possibly leading to major doubt for the 21-year-old.
"I needed her to finish," said Cohen. "But she needed her to finish more."
So she did.
After a little ice and a few light lifts in the warm-up area backstage, Haworth continued with the competition, but only the clean and jerk part of it. She even finished sixth, two spots ahead of where she had to for the USA women's team to keep its status internationally.
"There was no way I wasn't going back out there," she said. "This is the Olympic Games. I didn't come this far and work this hard to get here to bomb out. I'll destroy my elbow here, but I was making a total."
Some will look at the decision as brave, others as foolish. It was probably a little of both.
But it was Haworth's decision to make. And it was a tough one that had to come without hesitation at a trying time.
On the surface, it probably doesn't seem to have gotten her much.
A sixth place finish isn't the goal of a former medal winner. And finishing 25 kilos behind the Olympic champion was not what she had envisioned all those days she was working her way from a sling all the way to Saturday at the Olympics.
Athens didn't turn out the way Haworth or the many people who helped her rebuild her elbow, her strength and her career had hoped. And it would be easy to look at the static results of her sport's largest competition and suggest now that Haworth is no longer one of the strongest women in the world.
But that would be wrong.
In fact, in a pretty unusual way for a weightlifter, she might never have been stronger than she was Saturday.
Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is covering the Olympics for Morris News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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