Cheryl Haworth is the first US medal contender in weighlifting since 1984

Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2000

The last time an American weightlifter won an Olympic medal, Cheryl Haworth was not yet a year old. The last time the U.S. medalled when the world's dominant weightlifters weren't sitting back in their Eastern European countries in boycott, Haworth's parents weren't even married yet.

It is a long span that the Savannahian hopes to close now.

But, then, time seems to be a tool the Team Savannah wonder commands as adeptly as a barbell.

Haworth first walked into the Anderson-Cohen Weightlifting Center with exceptional timing, taking up the sport at a point when there was a program in Savannah that could foster her extraordinary natural strength and just months before it was announced that women's weightlifting would be a medal event in 2000. She sped almost inconceivably to excellence, not needing the years of training and technical training that mold most Olympians.

And, at 17, Haworth's time near the top of her sport has already arrived.

"Cheryl Haworth is a phenomenon,'' says Team Savannah founder Michael Cohen, who has coached the young star since she began lifting in 1996 and will coach her this week at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. "She has progressed faster than any athlete in the history of our sport. It is unfathomable the things she has done in the time that she has done them.''

But what Haworth can do in Sydney is suddenly the issue.

She enters the 75k-plus class competition as a legitimate medal contender, the first realistic hope America has had in the sport since Mario Martinez won a silver and Guy Carlton earned a bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Before that, the U.S. had not placed among the best lifters since 1976 in Montreal, where Lee James took a silver.

And Haworth will have the whole world's competition with her when she competes Sept. 22 at the Sydney Convention Centre.

Poland's Agata Wrobel, who beat Haworth for the gold at the 1999 Junior World Championships in Savannah, is favored to win. Meiyuan Ding, of China, is also entered in the field, a surprise in the weightlifting community, which expected the Chinese to enter its maximum of four women lifters in events it could easily win. Meanwhile, Melinda Szik, of Hungary, was selected by Australia's Daily Telegraph as the bronze-medal favorite (Sports Illustrated has tabbed Haworth for third.)

But the deep field won't be the toughest opponent Haworth has ever faced. She has already beaten a history of American apathy toward weightlifting, emerging during the last year as one of the most prominent U.S. athletes traveling to Sydney.

Going where no weightlifter has before, she has been a guest on national television shows, including the Tonight Show and Regis and Kathy Lee and stories about her have appeared in practically every large metropolitan daily in the country.

"It's been pretty nuts, but it's been good promotion for the sport,'' says Haworth, who will be rushed by limousine to the set of the Today Show in Sydney immediately after she competes. "I'm definitely going to take advantage of the media if that brings attention to weightlifting, because I think I don't think there's enough credit given to weightlifting in this country.''

Perhaps inevitably, the media has also taken advantage of Haworth.

By now, the stories of her immense strength have almost become clich: The 17-inch biceps, 32-inch thighs and 30-inch vertical leap. The entering Cohen's gym and tossing 110 pounds over her head as if it were a broom handle on her first try. The lifting friends' cars off the ground.

Readers from New York to Los Angeles have read about Savannah's prodigy of power. Invariably, though, they have read as much about Haworth's size, with stories usually casting her as the South's anti-belle, as a 300-pound contradiction of high-school paradigms.

But, according to Cohen, the national media has gotten the story wrong. What defines Haworth, he says, is her age.

"Think about what she is doing and when she's doing it,'' says Cohen. "Michael Jordan wasn't dominating the NBA at 17. In the NFL, a 22- or 23-year-old is a rookie, the grunt who carries the bags. Even in weightlifting, athletes don't reach their peak until their mid-20s for women and late 20s for men.

"Cheryl is one of the world's best weightlifters at the age of 17. And by the time she's 20, she's going to be the best in the world. That's what people should be talking about when they talk about Cheryl Haworth.''

The Savannah Arts Academy student has seemed unaffected by whatever is written or said about her, flattering or otherwise .

Although she is an authentic celebrity in an anonymous sport, she remains one of the most personable athletes in the gym, validating the nickname that is now what she is called most often. The first time she walked into the Anderson-Cohen Center, Haworth was wearing a t-shirt from Six Flags with F-U-N printed on the front.

And, ever since, she has been Fun to Team Savannah.

"She just has this great sense of humor, she has everybody laughing all the time,'' says Cara Heads-Lane, Haworth's training partner and Olympic teammate. "She's easy going, she doesn't get stressed out, she doesn't get overwhelmed, which is why she's able to handle everything, the media and the appearances.

"She's just levelheaded. When it's time, she just turns it on like a light switch. She gets focused, she gets ready, she decides to do it and it's as good as done before she even touches the bar.''

It is that time for Haworth now.

USA Weightlifting has placed a demand on its athletes in Sydney that one of them return with a medal. If that doesn't happen, it could negatively impact how the program is funded by the USOC.

And, while Cohen thinks each of the women he will be coaching in the 2000 Games has a chance to win a medal, there is little question who is the heaviest favorite.

But, typical of a quality that is as strong as her talent, Haworth is not concerned with what other people want from her in Sydney.

"I just want a medal, any medal,'' says Haworth, whose session in Sydney will begin at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, which will be 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 in Savannah. "I've decided I just really, really want t be standing on that podium. I just want it for me, as a collection of everything I've been working for.

"I'm kind of looking at this Olympic experience as my last one, even though it's probably not. I'm going to go out there and give it everything I've got to win a medal this time, because this very well could be the best chance I've got. I'm not going to come back later. I'm going to do it now.''

If she does, it would be right on time.

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