The dominant personality in the gym is Michael Cohen, one of the coaches of Team Savannah, a nationally known band of weightlifters. The gym is named for two of Cohen's heroes—the late Olympic-champion strongman Paul Anderson, a Georgian, and Cohen's father, Howard, a former national weightlifting champion. Cohen's wife, Sheryl, began by putting the 265-pound 13-year-old through cross-training paces. After 15 minutes Sheryl slipped away to her husband's office. "Michael," she said, "this Haworth is the fastest, strongest girl I've ever seen." So Michael had a look.
Her coming-out event was the 1996 American Open, at which she finished sixth in the superheavyweight division; she moved up to second the next year. Within 18 months, Haworth was outlifting every other female in her gym. In '98 Cohen told the board of directors of USA Weightlifting, " Cheryl Haworth will revolutionize our sport." Last summer she won the gold medal at the Pan American Games and a few months later took the bronze at the 1999 world championships in Athens. It was the only medal won by a U.S. lifter, male or female.
To say that Haworth can lift a lot of weight because she weighs so much is as simplistic as saying that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored a lot of points because he was so tall. Haworth's lifting technique is almost flawless and tends to get better as the weight goes up. She has a 33-inch vertical leap. Despite having 31-inch thighs, she can do a full split and, in a sprint, can almost beat Heads-Lane, who weighs only 165 and is an outstanding athlete as well. "Keep in mind we are talking about a person who could lose 100 pounds and still be good," says Heads-Lane. She pounds on a table. "Cheryl's calves and thighs are like this."
Later, at the Haworths' house, Sheila says, "Go ahead, touch her thighs." The touch is made; the thighs are indeed tabletop hard. Cheryl and Cohen agree that her lower back is her weakness, but even that's relative. In one of Cohen's typical training exercises, Cheryl lies on her back and, while holding a 33-pound weight aloft, does four sets of 15 to 20 crunches. Try it some time. "Taken together—her size, strength, flexibility, speed—these traits don't make sense," says Cohen. "Cheryl is a prototype."
If she seems old for her age, it's because of her size and the fact that she spends so much time around grown-ups like Heads-Lane, who's 22 and married. But there are times during their training sessions when Heads-Lane has to tell Haworth to stop fooling around. Haworth likes movies (The Green Mile and Erin Brockovich are two recent favorites), sushi and video games. "You'll have to wait until I get killed," she hollers to Sheila from another room when summoned to watch a tape of her appearance on The Tonight Show. "She means in the 007 game," explains Sheila.
Haworth rarely misses a workout—during the school year her day begins at 6:30 a.m., and she's typically in the gym until at least 6:30 p.m.—but it's not as though she runs out of the house each morning with girlish enthusiasm. The aches and pains have increased even as the gains on the bar have gone from exponential to incremental. It's getting tougher to improve. Still, she sticks to her training schedule, and if one thing suffers, it's her academics. "I can't help it," she says with a big smile. "I'm somewhat of an underachiever."
Though she's content with B's and C's in her academic courses, Haworth is serious about her art. Her favorite works, portraits done in pencil, of Team Savannah teammates Oscar Chaplin III and Ruth Rivera, look as if they came from a gallery. "Cheryl already has enough skills and talent to pursue a career in art," says Steve Schetski, who teaches Haworth drawing at the academy.
Her artistic talent may be what comes between her and a long-term future in weightlifting. Who knows, though. Perhaps the experience of Sydney, medal or no medal, will fire her up, keep her going—revolutionizing her sport—until 2004. Heck, until 2012.