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Cheryl Haworth: Olympic Bronze At Age 17 (Podcast)

Today we’re talking to three-time Olympian in weightlifting Cheryl Haworth. Cheryl is one of America’s most accomplished lifters, and she competed in her first Olympic Games — Sydney, where she earned bronze — when she was just 17 years old. That Olympic Games also marked the first time women could compete in weightlifting at the Olympic level. In this special episode of the BarBend Podcast, Cheryl joins us to look back on her experiences in Sydney 20 years ago, and what it was like to be among the first group of women Olympians to represent the USA in weightlifting.

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Tao talks to Cheryl Haworth about:

  • Finding out women’s weightlifting would become an Olympic sport (2:26)
  • Walking us through her competition session as Cheryl remembers it (6:45)
  • Getting the celebrity treatment as an Olympic medalist (12:45)
  • Cheryl’s Olympic experience after her weightlifting competition (16:00)
  • Representing the United States on the international stage (21:00)
  • Tara Nott-Cunningham — Cheryl’s Olympic teammate — missing her own medal ceremony to watch Chery’s performance (25:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

I had just gotten into weightlifting when everybody found out that it was a possibility that we could go ahead and put together a women’s team, and that it was officially an Olympic sport. I was already there. It was right when I stepped into the gym for the first time.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to three-time Olympian in weightlifting, Cheryl Haworth. Cheryl is one of America’s most accomplished lifters, and she competed in her first Olympic Games, Sydney, where she earned bronze when she was just 17 years old. That Olympic Games also marked the first time women can compete in weightlifting at the Olympic level.

 

In this special episode of the BarBend Podcast, Cheryl joins us to look back on her experiences in Sydney 20 years ago, and what it was like to be among the first group of women Olympians to represent the United States in weightlifting.

 

Also, I want to take a second to say we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast, so if you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend Podcast in your app of choice. I’d also recommend subscribing to the BarBend Newsletter to stay up to date on all things strength.

 

Just go to barbend.com/newsletters to start becoming the smartest person in your gym today. Now let’s get to it.

 

Cheryl, thanks for joining me today. It’s always a pleasure to chat with an old friend, fellow color commentator, and someone I’ve looked up to and weightlifting for a long time. I have to take it back to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. It was the first year women could compete in weightlifting at the Olympics, which is insane.

 

When is the moment that you knew you were going to be an Olympian heading into the 2000 games? Geez.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Gosh, that’s a great question. It really 20 years ago, David. First of all, right off the top. Thanks for having me. I love talking to you, David. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Just thanks for having me and for thinking of me.

 

It was such a chaotic time because I remember when everyone found out, I had just gotten into weightlifting when everybody found out that it was a possibility that we could go ahead and put together a women’s team, and then it was officially an Olympic sport.

 

I was already there. It was right when I stepped into the gym for the first time. Before then, a lot of women, they just they did it because they loved weightlifting.

 

You go to world championships and do that sort of thing but there was no Olympic Games for you. That’s when everything changed. It was about 1996, and I got really good at weightlifting really fast. At first, the first couple years, it was just to see if that was a sustainable thing.

 

It’s one thing getting strong really quickly and doing well in competitions, quite another thing to expect one to compete on the Olympic stage in four years. It was a process. I always had the confidence that I could make the team just the way the events unfolded in my weightlifting life. I got trained to go to competitions, and end up on top.

 

It was before everything hurt. I was a happy go lucky teenager, and everybody told me I was really great at it. I had no references for anything in life. You don’t know how it’s supposed to go. I just had fun with it and I believed from very early on that I was going to be on the Olympic team, and everybody told me as much.

 

I accepted that because I saw myself getting stronger, and I saw myself getting better at competing. It became a goal of mine really quickly. When did I know that I was on the team? It’s one of those things where I was ranked number one in the country the last two years, so maybe ’98, ’99. I was the top female weightlifter in the country, so it was a foregone conclusion.

 

It’s that thing, David, where if my mom’s in the room talking about buying plane tickets to Sydney and the Olympic trials hasn’t happened yet, I don’t want to overhear that conversation. You know what I mean, I’m not on the team until I’m on the team truly. It’s one of those things you don’t want to count your chickens.

 

I knew it and I assumed as much probably the last two years of the quad, but it was very much up to me to make it happen to go to the competitions I needed to go to and fight for that spot, and that’s what I did. I was telling you a little bit earlier, I’m so glad that it happened that way. That I had that momentum because in hindsight, it’s a very terrifying idea to go to the Olympics as a child, essentially.

 

Happy go lucky, I was and just so excited to go to the continent of Australia and do the kid stuff of, this is a new…I remember getting off the airplane in Australia, and being absolutely immediately fascinated that all the foliage and trees were completely different. I’ve never seen trees the same way, or bush.

 

I’m like “I wonder what kind of flower that is, what does that bird do,” and all that stuff. It was being on a different planet. It was just the excitement of it being the first time that a group of ladies to go to the Olympics. We were all very much captivated by that.

 

We had good camaraderie, and we were all very just fortunate and grateful to be there. If I did it all over again, I’ll probably have eight panic attacks.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] We’re going to avoid that.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

Your youthful confidence was a strength because you had a fantastic Games. Walk us through your competition session as you remember it.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

 It’s a blur, it really is. As I remember it, and some things came back to me a little bit, we had a podcast recently on “The USA Weightlifting Podcast” where we got the ladies together. We had Tara Nott-Cunningham, we had Cara Heads-Slaughter, myself, and Robin Byrd-Goad, one of the greatest female weightlifters in the United States history that a lot of people are unaware of.

 

We were chatting about the blisters on our feet from the Hush Puppies in the opening ceremonies. Those brand new shoes, you don’t have time to break them in yet. Some of the stuff came back to me. The competition day, I remember, arriving to the venue. My whole family was there, my parents and my two sisters. We were messaging back and forth because they’re all excited.

 

My sisters have the American flags painted on their face. I wanted my mom to braid my hair. That was my primary concern was to get my mom to do the double braid. I was originally a softball player after all, how they do the one that the French braid, the one on each side.

 

I had to get my hair did, and we sat right out in front of the venue in Darling Harbour Convention Center, and she braided my hair. I remember I was really quiet, not too full of energy. That’s the thing, I still don’t understand sometimes people spending a lot of time getting themselves all riled up. I’m always just trying to relax. My family got used to that over the years.

 

My mom would be, “What’s wrong, she’s not feeling good.” I’m like, “Mom, just trying to be cool.” I was very quiet and I reassured them that it’s feeling good and everything. I remember warming up for the snatches. The only thing I remember about that, I had a competitor, her name was Agata Wróbel. Agata was a Polish weightlifter. She was the girl who always finished ahead of me.

 

If she got second place, I got third place. She got first place, I got second place. Since the first junior worlds in 1997, in Sofia, Bulgaria, when she just barely beat me, that was our trend. I remember coming off the floor with maybe, 110 kilos snatch or something, it was a last warm up.

 

She was directly across from me. We locked eyes and we both came up with the same weight and did that snatch. It was almost we had practiced it, but it was startling. I just remember that moment and having to really focus to not let that distract me. It was over so fast, I don’t even remember my [indecipherable 09:55] , I made about 115, 121, 25 and that 125 snatch, I had never done before.

 

I had missed 122.5 kilos, at the trials. Typically then, I would have to take a crack at it maybe [indecipherable 10:14] a weight or something like that and then the next time I feel it or whatever but then the next competition I knew I was going to get it, but we went straight from 120 to 125.

 

I was having a really good day, and I needed a little extra on that total for…because I was really good in the snatch and still had not developed the real massive base of strength. I had only been accumulating strength for four years. My clean and jerk was just a little bit behind, I think, compared to the other ladies.

 

I needed big snatch, I went out there, and I did it. I remember the barbell passing by my face fast, and then it was just over my head. I don’t know. I distinctly remember standing up with that and going, I just actually snatched that. That was very exciting and really, one of the few things that I remember.

 

The other thing that I remember in the clean and jerk, this is a funny story. I may have told you this before, the only thing I remember about the clean and jerk is my last attempt on the competition platform, and I went into the little holding area to sit my chair before I got called out, and I remember one of the seats was wet.

 

I was like, “Oh, that’s weird. I don’t want to sit in that chair.” I sat in a dry chair, and I went on platform called 145 kilo clean and jerk. It was my last lift. I had already made all my lifts. This gives me a six-for-six day and probably clinches the medal.

 

I go out there, and I get set, and I had a dynamic start. I’d kind of fidget around, then rolled the bar into me and then go, and right at that moment, I noticed that there had been a wet spot on the platform, and it had been dried up.

 

In that moment, the only thought that I had was, “Oh, somebody peed the platform, and that’s why one of those chairs was wet. I’m so glad I didn’t sit there.” as the bar was passing my knees and then I made that last clean and jerk.

David TaoDavid Tao

Sometimes, the best lifts are what do you could take your mind completely out of the moment and think of something completely different, and if that’s what it took, that’s what it took.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

It was just a little spark of recognition than it was back to business. You know what I mean? Because I was doing that clean and jerk, David.

 

I was clean and jerk in that way. I remember after going to…you have to do a lot of media as it turns out when you went on and pick medal like they heard you into a room and you sit in front of, “Well, you’re a media guy, you’re the guy with a tape recorder and the arm outstretched, right? You’re getting scoop.”

 

They asked us a bunch of questions. It makes you feel like LeBron James after a Lakers game, and they’re sitting up there, and they’re talking about how good they did. It makes you feel like a badass for a moment.

 

You do your little interview, and I believe because what happened was Tara Nott-Cunningham, my teammate, had just been awarded the gold medal because she originally placed second place, but her competitor who got the gold medal Bulgarian tested positive while we’re still there at the Olympics.

 

She got stripped of her medal, and they were giving it to Tara. The USOC wanted to have her re-issuing of her gold medal to happen during my weightlifting competition, and she refused. She was like, “No, I’m going to see my teammate compete in the Olympics.”

 

I didn’t find out until later, and it speaks to the incredible woman that she is and how we felt about this opportunity that we had to share with one another in this moment that we were sharing together. But afterward, we did all that, we got carted off to the US, and it was the USOC at that time.

 

The Adidas house, I believe, and it was this beautiful, gorgeous facility on the state right across the harbor, and we had a view of the Opera House and the bridge and the whole nine yards, and she got her gold medal, and we celebrated. It was a long, long, long day. I don’t think I ever been so tired my whole life.

 

It was all a blur. I’m actually quite surprised I remember as much as I do about it. It was an amazing day and one that if I didn’t have memories and somebody just told me happened, I wouldn’t believe you.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s funny you mentioned that they make you do a lot of media after that. I’m still making you do media.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

[laughs] I’m used to it, David.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s over 20 years later, I’m still making you do media.

 

About that one day, where were you living it?

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

You know, this is my favorite part.

David TaoDavid Tao

You get to feel like…

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Story tell.

David TaoDavid Tao

Here we go, after a Lakers game.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

You tell stories.

David TaoDavid Tao

Because you competed toward the end of the weightlifting sessions. What was the rest of your experience like as an athlete at those Olympic Games? Did you get to go and spectate any other sports? Did you get to enjoy yourself a little bit because heavyweights have to train the whole way, you’re not done in one of the first few days of competition.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Right, fortunately, weightlifting, though, is toward the beginning of the Olympics. There are several days typically after I’m done to act like a maniac and rebel and do all the fun stuff and go see. My family, like I said, was there in Sydney, and they actually had rented an apartment on Bondi Beach, and it was right down the way from the beach volleyball facilities.

 

That first day I was done, I just spent almost exclusively with them. We hung out at the beach. We relaxed, we played, we splashed around, we got knocked over by the crazy Pacific surf that we weren’t used to coming from Georgia. You don’t surf off the coast of Georgia. These things were serious.

 

I remember playing with my family, and then I believe that we went to a soccer match. I think we saw Italy play. It was Italy and Spain. I think we went to a softball game. I know I went to a softball game at least once. Because I knew some of the ladies on the team at that time like Dot Richardson, like Lisa Fernandez, those were coincidentally both pitchers.

 

The softball team was great, and we had done a lot of media and stuff. Leading up to the Games was crazy too, because everybody knew that we were the first lady weightlifters. We did the TV shows. I was in New York City, the year 2000 in a year prior at least 15 or 20 separate times for a variety of reasons.

 

A lot of the other athletes too, with certain banquets or whatever, they would turn up or photo shoots. I remember I met Stacy Dragila, who ended up being the gold medalist in pole vault. It was one of the first times a lady’s been able to do that. I was starstruck, to say the least.

 

What was the whole point of that? I was telling you a story about something, David. This is what happens when you give me a microphone.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] I was going to ask about, you talked about softball.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Other sports. There you go. See. Softball, I think, that might be it. Now I’m thinking about water polo, but that was a different Olympics. I went to water polo. We might have seen some track and field events too. There were a couple events that we were able to get tickets to see. That’s the thing too, it’s hard to get tickets to stuff, obviously.

 

My parents had to get in line and secure additional tickets for my session to see me lift weights, because you only get two. Or you used to only get two. Being finished and still at the Olympic Games is a super cool feeling.

 

I might have ended up in a different town one of the nights and then snuck back into the village the next day, with a certain Oscar Chaplin III. We won’t go into too much detail about that because we were young at the time.

 

Man, we had a great time. Australia, it’s a beautiful place, it’s a gorgeous place. They made us feel very, very welcomed to be there. We had a blast.

David TaoDavid Tao

Did you feel any additional pressure being one of the first American women, one of the first women to compete in weightlifting at the Olympic level? Did that feel like you had an extra burden you were carrying into those games?

 

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

I didn’t. I didn’t at all. Perhaps…

David TaoDavid Tao

Not to say that you should have felt that. That’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s being a pioneer in anything, whether you choose to be a pioneer or whether you’re just, “Hey, I’m a weightlifter, and I’m going to lift weights and do it to the best of my ability.” It can sometimes carry that extra weight to it.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Right. Totally. I don’t disagree with that at all. I think that it did. You know how I like to make a good first impression, David. Generally trying not to…Be a good sports person. That was always important to me. The gravity of being on the inaugural female team, it was there. Perhaps that feeling is there anyway.

 

You want to represent your country with grace. You want to fight hard. You want to show the world that the ladies on this side of the pond are strong too. That is there. It’s an honor. You do feel that. A burden or perhaps some additional pressure that I didn’t, that felt icky or I didn’t want to feel. That’s just part of the package. I embraced it.

 

I wanted to make my family proud. I wanted to make my country proud. I wanted to make my teammates proud. My coaches, who worked so hard to make this happen. That’s the thing too, that struck me a little bit more, is the orchestration of the whole thing.

 

To know that the legions of volunteers and everything that has to come together to make this event happen is because you want to lift weights. What do you do with that? You’re here to honor that too. To be a part of the process that you need to be. To play that role to be the athlete. To fight hard. To do it with dignity.

 

It’s a sight to behold, going…If you haven’t been present at an Olympic Games, it’s madness. How many people come together just to compete with each other. That energy is a good energy. It’s sacred energy. It’s one of the few times you can feel that kind of energy is at the Olympic Games when people come together like that.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re still pretty close with your teammates from that Olympic Games. Is that correct?

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Yeah. Cara Heads-Slaughter is hands down my bestie. We’ll go ahead and throw that, and she got stuck with me, though. When she ended up being my training partner leading into the Olympics, we trained on the same barbell for three solid years.

 

She was then my support, my dear best friend, and she still is. I’m very, very fortunate to have somebody like her on my life.

 

Robin is just down the street. Robin Goad and her kids lift and, of course, Dean Goad, her husband was a quite talented weightlifter as well, but they have their family right down the road in Newnan, Georgia, and I bumped into her every once in a while, and I tell you what, there are a few people on the planet that are just as delightful as that woman is.

 

If you ever see her in a competition, this goes to anybody hearing or listening to this or seeing this, stop or say hello, you won’t regret it. She’s absolutely and again, like I said before, just one of the most decorated…She was an Olympic carrier on not an Olympic champion. She was a World Champion in 1994.

 

She was a part of the first female group that had a World Championship in 1987. I believe that was the year the very first women’s world champion. She was on that team, and she made it all the way to the Olympic Games, and she’s got some stories to tell, and she’s just an incredible human being and somebody that I need to talk to.

 

I need to talk to both of the little ladies more. I talked to Tara also, like I said on that Zoom call recently for the podcasts, and it had been a long time since I talked to Tara, but she is the same as she ever was. She’s so humble. It’s so funny to see. She’s the most unassuming Olympic champion, I think.

 

It’s always a joke like, “Oh, if you win an Olympic medal people always say that if they won the medal, they’d wear it all the time,” which is not true. You wouldn’t. You think you would, but you wouldn’t. But Tara takes it to the extreme. She’s something that I did. She’s soft-spoken and just super humble and just so graceful and just what an [indecipherable 25:30] .

 

Like I told you, saying no to somebody putting an Olympic gold medal around your neck to go watch your teammate compete. That’s who she is as a person. She’s got five kids.

 

A husband’s an amazing wrestling coach, and it’s just good to know him.

 

We need to schedule calls like that more often, David, because I talked to Tara all the time, but having all the ladies on the call at one time, it filled my heart up, and it was a great experience, and they’re wonderful people.

David TaoDavid Tao

What was you all against the world and in many ways, just a pioneering group, and we look at where women’s weightlifting is in America right now and in the world right now.

 

In many ways, just as hyped up as the men and some of the most visible athletes and some of those popular athletes in the United States, at least, are these incredibly strong women, and I know you’re a pretty humble person as well, Cheryl, but I’ll say they have you and the women you lifted within 2000 to think for quite a bit.

 

It’s cool to look back and reflect but also to see, hey, we’re USA weightlifting and American athletes are heading into, hopefully, Tokyo 2020 but Tokyo 2021.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

You know what? I think it all comes full circle. You only appreciate where you are when you see where you’ve come from, and it’s the figurative passing of the torch. What we do at the Olympics, you got to pass the torch so that somebody else can carry on.

 

It’s almost entirely the whole point and to do so peacefully with one another, and it’s knowing what the Olympics has brought to my life and in the pursuit of that goal, every four years. It’s a gift, and I’m so grateful that others get to keep experiencing that gift.

 

I hope weightlifting is around forever. I hope American women and women all across the globe continue to have the opportunity to do so and to discover how strong they can actually be.

David TaoDavid Tao

Awesome. Well, Cheryl, thank you so much for your time today. It’s amazing hearing some of these stories that I’d heard kind of second hand before, but really diving into the experiences of “I’m just a kid at the Olympic Games!” What an amazing set of experiences and thing you accomplished there.

 

Really just the beginning of your very storied weightlifting career, so thanks for giving us a little insight to that slice of your life. Appreciate it.

Cheryl HaworthCheryl Haworth

Thanks for having me, David. Always a pleasure, sir.

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