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
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."
September 10, 2000
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
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 softball 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.
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
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
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,
The first time she saw Haworth, a coach said, "[She] is the
fastest, strongest girl I've ever seen."
Despite having 31-inch thighs, Haworth has a 33-inch vertical
leap and can do a full split.