Originally created 09/27/00

Weightlifters put Savannah in world spotlight

SYDNEY - The luggage Team Savannah took to the 2000 Olympics was packed a long time ago, bags jammed with the clothes, equipment and personal belongings for a month in Australia.

They took a lot with them. But they bring back even more.

One medal, one ring, one reunion, five experiences.

That's what the local weightlifters took from the Sydney Games, the remnant yield from the time of five young lives.

They return now fom the Southern Hemisphere to the American South, Cheryl Haworth the latest to arrive back in Savannah tonight. But their trip is far from over, its impact on their sport, their city and their celebrated weightlifting program perhaps only beginning.

"Savannah showed itself to the world here," said Michael Cohen, the former Olympian who formed a weightlifting club 13 years ago and has watched it reach from his hometown to the height of international competition. "Up and down the line, we had a great showing. This was a big, big moment for Team Savannah and for American weightlifting."

And, regardless of individual performance in Sydney, it will be a benchmark for the local athletes who comprised half the United States Olympic weightlifting team here.

Every one of them will find value in the experience. And for each it will be different, some rewards coming from the competition and others more tied to unique Olympic culture and their own exposure to it.

For Haworth, the 17-year old whose star power equaled her lifting power in Australia, it was winning a bronze medal in the first Olympic weightlifting competition for women and perhaps demonstrating new possibilities to women of size.

For Suzanne Leathers, who went to Sydney as an alternate and did not get the opportunity to compete, it was a wedding, a most memorable ceremony that became an international media event the night before the opening ceremonies when she married her coach in Sydney.

Cara Heads-Lane realized the kind of dream that is talked about in the back of high school lockerooms when she and Misty May watched each other perform in the same Olympics, just as they said they would some day when the two grew up together in Santa Monica, Calif. Oscar Chaplin got to the highest level of his sport after 11 years in the gym, setting an American record with his performance in Sydney, and 17-year-old Michael Martin got experience at these Olympics that will become worthwhile when he comes back to another.

There should be no questioning the success of the trip.

"It was very enjoyable. I couldn't have asked for anything better," said Haworth, who had not even discoverd competitive weightlifting when the last Olympics were held in Atlanta. "I enjoyed everything that happened to me. It feels good to know it's finally over, because it was really tough to keep focused for that long, but it was good that everything worked out the way it did.

"It feels like so much longer than four years. It feels like I've been doing this forever and dreaming about this forever. It's definitely a good feeling now."

And, perhaps a good advertisement for an often overlooked sport.

With Haworth's international emergence and with Tara Nott winning America's first weightlifting gold medal in 40 years, the sport might have taken a considerable step forward in Sydney. USA Weightlifting went to the Olympics a program under pressure, practically being ordered to win at least one medal or risk having its funding from the USOC cut. They won two, as well as attention from all over the world.

And they also built an undilluted hope for the future that is unusual for the sport in America.

Of the six lifters on the 2000 team, half have not even neared what is considered to be prime age for weightlifting, with Haworth and Martin only 17, Chaplin 20 and Heads-Lane 23.

"I will expect, going into 2004, for there to be much more production from American weightlifters at the next Olympic Games in Athens, Greece," said Cohen, who coached the United States women's team in Sydney. "We've got the base and we've got the superstars. What we need to do now is go out and find others to come up behind them and give them the opportunity.

"And, after this, I expect the numbers in the sport to quadruple in the next four years."

In Savannah, a still-young outpost for Olympic weightlifting could also continue to take the lead for developing stars in the sport. This year, Team Savannah produced half of the U.S weightlifting team, three competitors and two alternates. And the last two weeks when the world's media chased Haworth and stumbling onto four other interesting, articulate athletes along the way, the Strongest City in the South reached places it had never been before.

"Savannah, Georgia," said Cohen, "Weightlifting USA." That's how far Team Savannah has now come, from the crowded corner of a local high school to the broadest sporting stage in the world.

It was only 13 years ago when Cohen took a job as strength and conditioning coach at Jenkins high school, that he walked into the cluttered cubicle the school had designated as its weight room and saw opportunity through the obvious limitations. He was still training for the 1988 Olympics - an attempt that would be derailed by injury - so he had no illusions beyond getting a few local kids interested in the sport, of using his expertise and weightlifting connections to build a better gym at Jenkins.

So, with just four kids at the start, the Jenkins Iron Warriors began meeting every day after school, and formed the seeds of strength. After the group went to a competition in North Carolina and brought home three gold medals and a silver, interest grew. The four became eight, which became 16, which became 32.

But within that attention came the incident that ended the program's association with Jenkins and changed its future. When the school was reported to the GSWAA for operating a non-sanctioned sport, Cohen was told he could no longer use its name and, without a thought, Team Savannah was born.

"I was in a meeting with Don Stewart, the principal at Jenkins at the time," says Cohen, "and when he told me that I said, fine, we'll call ourselves Team Savannah. It happened that fast. It just came out."

Shortly later, so did the newly named program.

When renovations at the school eliminated the little gym, Cohen moved his program to an unused space at Herdy Middle School, and the abandoned cafeteria fed the weightlifting club's growth. Now able to draw from the whole community instead of one high school, participation quickly exceeded available time for Cohen and his then-small staff to train athletes.

"Not long after that," says Cohen, "somebody from the County Commission called me and asked if I would support a radical idea called a one-cent sales tax and, if I did, a weightlifting center would be the first facility built with the proceeds."

The new home was soon viewed as the premier Olympic weightlifting center in the country. And the program based there became the nation's elite, as well.

Team Savannah's athletes have been competing internationally for a decade, they have won medals and brought attention to the city from around the world.

And last week, in the world's largest sporting event, the team, the athletes and their little Southern city had an international coming out, sort of a worldwide debut with a grunt instead of a gown.

Their varied successes and the reaction to them brought attention to the city and established an Olympic legacy in Savannah that not even the Olympics themselves had brought. And it has convinced Cohen to want to keeo moving his program forward.

"Chatham County is doing something that the rest of the country is not doing and that's providing opportunities," said Cohen. "As long as the county provides the opportunity, we're going to take advantage of it. I think we're going to see the numbers going through the gym go up right away and that's good and bad.

"It's good because we want the people to get involved and it's bad because now I'm going to have to go to the county and ask for more money to expand the program. But that's o.k., I'm not bashful about asking. And the one thing is, now I'm going in there with a proven record."

And with a whole lot of power.


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