It's not easy being 17. It's not easy being both a sensitive artist and a kick-ass athlete. It's not easy being female and trying to make it in a man's sport. It's not easy being a young woman of substantial girth in a society that worships pretzel models. Meet Cheryl Haworth of Savannah, who is all these things, as well as America's best chance of winning a medal in women's weightlifting, which makes its Olympic debut in Sydney. "I have only one concern about Cheryl," says Michael Cohen, who is Haworth's coach as well as that of the U.S. women's team. "She can't hide. Everyone sees how big she is. How she handles that will be a big part of how successful she is."
So far Haworth, who stands 5'9" and weighs about 300 pounds, is handling it well, both at night (she has traded one-liners with Jay on The Tonight Show) and in the morning (she unofficially broke the U.S. clean-and-jerk record on Regis and Kathie Lee while weathering the clean-yet-jerky chatter of the cohosts). There are no doubt times when Haworth wishes she had a different body—who among us doesn't have those moments?—but she seems to be a well-adjusted young woman who, says training partner Cara Heads-Lane, "doesn't worry about what this little boy or that little boy might be thinking about her and stays focused on the things that are important to her: her family, her friends, her lifting."
In late June and early July, at the junior world championships in Prague, the focus was on Haworth and a woman who will be one of her top rivals at the Olympics in the superheavyweight division (more than 165 pounds), 19-year-old Agata Wrobel of Poland. Advantage Wrobel, which wasn't unexpected. While Haworth tied her own American record in the snatch (264.6 pounds), the 266-pound Wrobel broke the world snatch record by lifting 286.6 pounds and, with her clean and jerk, totaled 639.3, another world mark. While Wrobel swept the golds, Haworth earned two silvers (snatch and total) and a bronze in the clean and jerk. Haworth will have to go some to beat Wrobel and China's Ding Meiyuan in Sydney, but she is improving constantly. She holds every U.S. record in her division despite having never picked up a weight until 1996, and then almost by accident. The prevailing wisdom holds that big men and women don't approach their maximum strength until age 30, and some weightlifting experts, Cohen foremost among them, believe Haworth will become the sport's first household name in the U.S.
That is way too much to ponder for Haworth, who has set goals for Sydney but beyond that knows only that she wants to study art in college (she is entering her senior year at the Savannah Arts Academy), that she wants to have a lot of friends and that she wants to have a life away from sweat and clanging metal. "At the Olympics I want to show improvement and get a medal," she says. "I'm not saying what kind of medal."
Neither is Cohen. "I expect Cheryl to win some kind of medal," he says. In other words, if she doesn't win a medal, the Games will have been a failure for her, a daunting prospect for someone so young, no matter how big she may be.
Cheryl's parents, Sheila and Bob, were both athletic-Sheila was on her high school track and softball teams, and Bob was a two-time Nebraska high school state wrestling champion. Neither Bob nor Sheila is particularly big, nor were any of their three daughters extraordinarily big at birth. Beth, the oldest, and middle daughter Cheryl each weighed eight pounds, 13 ounces; Katie, three years younger than Cheryl, was the giant at nine pounds, one ounce.
For the first five years of her life Cheryl was sickly, beset with infections, allergies and a poor appetite. One day Sheila had had enough. "Something is going on," she told the family doctor. "I want her tonsils and adenoids out." After the operation Cheryl's life changed. "I remember giving her a plate of mashed potatoes and seeing her eyes light up," says Sheila. "With all the medication and infections I think it was literally the first time she had tasted food."
So Cheryl began to eat and gain weight. After a couple of years her mom consulted a dietician, who told them to cut back on the portions and frequency of meals. "But if my little girl is hollering because she's hungry," says Sheila, "I am not going to deprive her of food."
Sheila served and Cheryl ate. But it is not literally true that she ate her way to 300 pounds. Her body accepted the avoirdupois—"Obviously her genes were in play for her to be a large girl," says Bob—and her athleticism increased along with her weight. She was never awkward, and she spent many of her summer days off the ground, building elaborate tree houses with friends. It remains a partial mystery as to how Cheryl got so big. At 19, Beth is petite; Katie, a budding weightlifter, is sturdy and big-boned at 170 pounds but will never get near Cheryl's weight.
As Cheryl approached her high school years, it looked as if softball was going to be her sport. She played third base and the outfield and was known for her defensive abilities, her strong arm and her power hitting. They called her the Arm. In the fall of 1996, Haworth's soft-ball coach suggested that the Arm pay a visit to the Paul Anderson/Howard Cohen Weightlifting Complex in southeast Savannah for some weight training to get her in shape for the upcoming season. The gym is housed in an unassuming cinder block building, but it's one of the best training facilities in the country for young athletes. Any resident of Chatham County can work out at the gym with any of the 12 full-time coaches at no cost because the facility is completely underwritten by the county.