SYDNEY -- Now this is FUN. Cheryl Haworth was given that nickname four years ago because of a t-shirt she wore. And it was her all over again Friday, evident once more in what she was wearing: an air, a smile, a medal.
The 17-year-old Savannahian became the youngest American weightlifter ever to win an Olympic medal Friday, taking a bronze in the 75-kilo-plus class at the 2000 Games. She was successful on all six of her lifts at the Sydney Convention Centre to set four national junior and four national senior records and become the second American female to medal in the first Olympic women's weightlifting competition.
Earlier Friday, Kansas City's Tara Nott was moved up from silver to gold in the 48-kilo class when a third Bulgarian lifter was disqualified at these Games for doping.
But Haworth happily settled for the golden feeling of any Olympic medal around her neck after China's Meiyuan Ding and Agata Wrobel, of Poland, ran away from the rest of the 75kg-plus field. Ding became the first woman to lift 300kg in competition and won the gold over Wrobel, whose 295kg total was 25kg ahead of Haworth's new American record.
"This feels really great,'' said Haworth, who became Savannah's first Olympic medalist since Lucinda Williams Adams. "Winning an Olympic medal is something I could only dream about. I kept telling myself, this is what I wanted, this is what I'm working for.
"I really felt that just to secure a medal was good enough for me. I'm not disappionted in the bronze and I wouldn't give it up for anything. I'll take being the third strongest woman in the world for now. This is exciting.''
So was Friday's competition, as Haworth was in the middle of a magnificent show of strength that validated the decision to add women's weightlifting to the Olympics.
The medalists made 13 of a total 18 lifts, while Wrobel and Ding broke and re-broke 11 world records, upping the snatch and clean-and-jerk marks by 5kg each. Ding's total was 10kg better than the previous world best.
And, when the junior and senior world champions went out so strongly, Haworth's intentions were quickly cast in bronze.
With her first snatch attempt, she tossed 117.5kg over her head as if it were a reed. On her second, she simply overpowered the bar, making an American record-tying 120kg despite being out of position all through the lift. But her third snatch attempt is what made the Games for Haworth, the lift that solidified her medal position and set up a cautiously effective performance in the clean and jerk.
Stepping to the stage for a weight she had never even attempted previously -- not in competition, not in the gym -- she breathed deeply before jerking the bar to her shoulders and pushing it overhead in a smooth, continuous motion.
"I think that was the highlight of the whole competition, that and getting the bronze,'' said Haworth, who let out an ecstatic scream as she held her second American-record snatch of the day over her head.
The reaction was typical Haworth, pure fun. And there was reason for it.
"That was the pivotal lift,'' said Michael Cohen, who has trained Haworth for four years with Team Savannah and was the U.S. women's coach in Sydney. "That put her in the medal. After that, we made the strategic lifts, just little jumps in the clean and jerk to protect the medal. That's what we were here for.''
Leading fourth place by 10kg after the snatch and 7.5kg out of the silver, Haworth's concentration switched from records to retaining her position midway through the competition.
She opened the clean-and-jerk portion of the competition by easily making 140kg, which guaranteed she would post a total and made it nearly as certain that she could not be caught from behind. Still, after increasing only to 145kg for her final lift, she had to wait for Colombia's Carmenza Delgado and Kyung-Ae Mun, of Korea, to fail on their final attempts before being assured of the bronze.
"It was just a great feeling knowing I did what I needed to do, listened to my coach, and here I am,'' said Haworth, who had not even begun lifting competitively by the time of the last Olympics. "It's really amazing how fast everything was happening and how quickly everything comes together when you work hard.
"I really wanted the medal. That was the important thing and I wasn't going to let anyone take it away from me.''
Friday's performance, however, could take Haworth even farther into the celebrity that has grown in Sydney.
Already the most celebrated American weightlifter, the Savannah Arts Academy student was in extreme demand Friday, holding three mass news conferences before appearing on NBC's Today Show from Sydney's Olympic Park. Seven hours after stepping off the medal stand, she was still talking about her performance ("I knew I had to make every lift today''), her emotions ("I thought I would be hollering and crying, but I wasn't'') and her future in weightlifting ("this makes me want to do better, train harder and get more people involved in the sport'').
And, although she had just won the first U.S. weightlifting bronze in 16 years, had just lifted more than any American woman ever, she had just continued to answer the national media's fascination with her size when the real issue was the largeness of her achievement.
"It doesn't bother me. I'm a weightlifter, I'm not trying to be be small, I'm trying to be strong,'' said Haworth. "Hopefully this will show people that they can find something they're good at no matter what size they are. Some people just have to look a little farther than others.
"I don't worry about that. I just try to do what I have to do, be successful and have a good time.''
That's Haworth all right: Big Fun.
Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352 after Oct. 8.
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