Originally created 09/19/00

Woman weightlifter dealing with Olympic pressure



SYDNEY -- Another fitness center could have helped with conditioning for softball, which was her only real intention at the start. Any personal trainer might have discovered her unique strength.

But, of all the gym joints in all the towns in all the world, Cheryl Haworth walked into Mike Cohen's. And neither has been the same since.

From the time they started working toward today four summers ago, Haworth has gone from being a curiously powerful young teenager into the strongest woman in America, whose pull on the national media's interest has been as impressive as her overhead push on a barbell. And Cohen's Team Savannah simultaneously went from being a nice little weighlifting program with a promising future to America's most fertile field for Olympic talent.

They got where they are together, Haworth's innate strength and Cohen's expertise equally responsible for a remarkable rise through international weightlifting rankings. And, together, they'll be at the height of the sport today, Haworth competing and Cohen coaching when the 2000 Olympics' women's 75kg-plus class is contested at the Sydney Convention Center in Darling Harbour.

It will be a moment that Haworth has been waiting for since discovering weightlifting shortly after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and that Team Savannah has been approaching since Cohen started his program in an abandoned gym at Jenkins High School with just four athletes eight years earlier. Both waits have been ridiculously short by international competition standard. But when both end today, it won't be soon enough for either Haworth or Cohen.

"I'm ready for this," said Haworth, who had her last pre-Olympic training session Tuesday in Sydney. "I feel really prepared, as prepared as I've ever been. I did all the right things to get ready. Now it's just up to how I feel that day."

Surprisingly, she could feel relaxed.

While the 17-year-old says she is usually more anxious than she seems at competitions and will be even more so for the biggest event of her career, she will also be taking a break of sorts. She will have finished with the distractions of the last week in Sydney, where in addition to training, she has had the international media's eye trained on her. She has fulfilled requests every day since the U.S. team moved north from Canberra Sept. 13.

In addition to the typical group interviews that accompany any major sports story and all Olympics, Haworth also sat for one-on-one sessions, including one Monday with Tom Brokaw and NBC Nightly News and another Tuesday with NBC's Katie Couric.

But the talking finally stops now for Haworth.

"We shut her down," said Cohen, who established a 24-hour media blackout period prior to Haworth's competition. "All she's got to worry about now is lifting."

Some of the worrying that Haworth and Cohen had expected in Sydney has been removed.

With Tara Nott, America's 48-kg woman lifter, earning a silver medal Sunday, USA Weightlifting's demand that the team bring home one medal has already been met. That leaves Haworth in a position where any pressure is personal, which she says will be easier to handle than if the entire U.S. team was relying on her.

"I don't think this competition will be as hard as the World Championships last year, where I had to place well just to get us spots in the Olympics," says Haworth. "I've been under pressure before and I've done all right. Basically, I came here to do the best I can and that's what I'm going to try to do."

That's what she may have to do to reach her personal goal of medaling.

Although she was second in the 1999 Junior World Championships in Savannah last summer, there are now three top lifters in her class she will have to beat. If she doesn't, it will not be because she has not prepared properly. During her three weeks of training in Australia, she has matched her American record snatch of 120kg in the gym and has come within 2.5kg of lifting her record clean and jerk (145).

"Cheryl is in the best shape she has ever been in," says Cohen. "She's injury free and she's ready to shatter her American records by 5-kilos in every lift. The medal is her's to grab or to lose.

"On paper, Cheryl should not be able to catch the three girls in front of her. But that's only if they make all their lifts. If she makes all of her lifts and they stumble, she's got them."

Cohen says he will not hold back with Haworth in this competition, that he will give her at keast one shot at lifting for the gold if he thinks she can manage the weight. And she says she will attempt any lift her coach instructs her to.

What do you know, together again, in thought as they will be in execution tonight.

"It's a big day, she knows what's at stake," says Cohen. "And she knows that, if she makes all of her lifts, it will be an even bigger day."

For both, Haworth and the coach who took her to this point.