‘The bigger you are, the more invisible you are’: Olympic champion Cheryl Haworth on her journey from the USA’s Deep South to Hong Kong
The youngest American weightlifter to win a medal at the Olympics now lives in Hong Kong. She talks about her three Games campaigns, her artistic side and the Deep South
A childhood in Savannah, Georgia, could not be any more different from that of most Hong Kong children. In the harvest season on the banks of the blue bayou, the waft of hay and honeysuckle fills timber porches resplendent with swinging timber couches.
With their long pontoons bearing pagoda-like structures, even singers Roy Orbison and Linda Ronstadt found the bayou something worth singing about.
It was in this Deep South rural idyll that Cheryl Haworth spent her childhood outdoors, dreaming big.
With her friends, Haworth roamed the forests near her home, dodging the odd rattlesnake and propping her buddy, Steven, up high so that he could nail the timber boards in to make the elaborate treehouses she designed, the remnants of which still stand today.
Watch: Cheryl Haworth shares her favourite moments at the 2000 Sydney Games
Cheryl, a keen softball player, was non-plussed about her strength at the time. “When I started lifting at 13, I weighed roughly 105 kilos, and was lifting about 60 kilos, so being a super heavyweight back then was pretty much my only option,” she says.
All sports have their trailblazers and Haworth took this role hands down, attending the first Olympics where women weightlifters could compete (Sydney 2000) and winning a bronze medal – all while in her senior year of high school.
“Many people train for up to 16 years for the Olympics. Every athlete is geared to the four-year cycle.
“I didn’t do my first competition until I was 14, and, at 17, I was at Sydney 2000. I didn’t even train for a full quadrennial. Looking back at it now, its mind blowing.”
Just as well Haworth didn’t stick with softball. It’s no longer an Olympic sport. However, her timing was perfect for weightlifting for women.
Whatever size she was, the media loved her. At 17, she was on the Jay Leno show and developed legions of followers.
Her fans include male prisoners who have seen the film Strong, a 75-minute documentary chronicling her family, training and personal life in the lead-up to Beijing 2008 and her battle with injury that ultimately saw her give up competition in 2009.
Haworth, the youngest ever American weightlifter to win a medal at the Olympics – and the last – now lives in Hong Kong and has been busy getting on with life after three Olympics.
While she was technically “the trailing spouse” as her partner’s job drew them to Hong Kong 18 months ago, she was keen to be propelled into a new life and take on new work challenges.
Top of this list is helping experienced weightlifters and novices find their feet at Coastal Fitness in North Point, established by former Hong Kong rugby brothers Ed and Anthony Haynes.
“Weightlifting is all about the efficiency of movement. There are no wasted efforts and movements.
“And in between, we are sitting and resting and conserving energy for the next explosive effort. Often I used to be asleep in between Olympic lifts because the energy required for each one is huge,” said Haworth, the 2005 super heavyweight world champion.
“Weightlifting is something that you never really master. It’s not a sport that gets easier over time. The weight simply gets heavier, and there are more challenges involved at getting better at lifting.
“As you add more weight it changes technique, your perception and how you approach the bar.
“You’re never done. It never gets to the level where you can just put it on cruise control.
“The whole thing about weightlifting is that there are no variables. Each time you walk up to the same empty barbell.
“With a sport like rugby, you can’t know how the play is going to unfold and what’s in store for your team or the opposition, in terms of play or injuries.
“In weightlifting, you take as much weight as you can and make it look easy. It doesn’t hinge upon how strong you are, but technique.
“I am not strong in so many ways, for instance I hate stairs, and there are plenty of them in Hong Kong.”
And despite having a 20cm wrist circumference in her prime, she says: “There are many athletes that, at their best, would have beaten me in an arm wrestle.
While Haworth had to make plenty of compromises as a teenager – trying to juggle school, a job and putting the idea of a relationship on hold – the trade-off was worth it, she says.
“I went to like 16 or 17 countries when I was still in school. Places not many folks from Savannah, Georgia, have been to like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Central America.”
But if you scratch deeper in the annals of women’s weightlifting, you’ll find headlines like: “The strongest woman in America lives in poverty”, and “Olympic weightlifter is broke, would it be different if she was hot?”
While these headlines refer to fellow American weightlifter Sarah Robles who competed in London in 2012, it raises the question: Has much changed in weightlifting in America since Haworth was the first woman to compete in Sydney in 2000?
Haworth had to sell her house after the 2004 Athens Olympics to move to the Olympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs.
“Just because some sports get to be Olympic sports, my experience is that it’s not always that a lot of money gets devoted to them.”
And the reality is that sponsors want a more “regular” view of womanhood to promote their products. “It’s hard for people to understand that bigger people can be elite athletes. The bigger you are, the more invisible you are,” she philosophises.
“There’s being an individual competitor in a sport that everyone watches, like swimming and gymnastics, and there’s being an individual competitor in a sport that no one watches.”
Her last two Olympic campaigns were thwarted by injury and she was forced to retire in 2009 at the age of 26 because of continuous injuries.
“I have a lot of regrets, for sure. I feel like there are moments where I could have worked harder. I think being a super competitive, driven athlete; it’s always going to feel that way.
“Basically, after injuring my elbow and tearing ligaments badly I had a short amount of time to get prepared for the Athens Olympics, which included qualifying.
“I was never guaranteed a spot in the Olympic team, so each Olympic year I would have to lift to qualify. I was able to do that and lift at the Games in 2004, but I didn’t have as much time as I wanted to prepare.
“Instead, of utilising the entire four years I only had one solid year of training. Also, the competition was pretty steep that year.
“You’d give yourself PTSD if you spent too much time thinking about injury. It’s easier to talk yourself out of it than it is to talk yourself into it.
“To concede to gravity. You know this could hurt. There are a lot of things you do wrong if you get ahead of yourself.”
Beijing 2008 was a similar story.
“Although I had wonderful competitions at the beginning of that quad (in 2005 she finished third in the world championships in Doha – the last world championship medal any American has won since), I suffered a series of injuries leading up to Beijing.
“Again, I was strong enough to beat my American counterparts to qualify, but when I got there it wasn’t enough to perform the way I wanted. That’s still hard for me to swallow.
“Based on my international total score I posted in 2005, (or even less) would have won me the silver medal in Beijing.”
And she wonders how many more medals she may have won in a sport rife with drugs and cheating.
In Sydney 2000 alone, four medals had to be reassigned after three Bulgarians and one Armenian were caught.
“We had strict laws in the States with Usada [the US Anti Doping Agency]. They went to huge lengths to test our urine, we were tested and retested. They’d turn up at your house, training, competition or workplace with no advance warning – over 10 times a year.
“Half of the urine was tested and half was frozen and stored. If they ever decided thaw it out and retest – which I think is not likely – maybe I would get a whole lot more medals in the mail.”
With the highs and lows, Haworth is fortunate that she has a good education behind her. She is a proud alumni of the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which is world renowned and has a campus in Hong Kong with 600 students.
“I feel strongly that it’s one of the best art and design universities in the world,” she says.
Fortuitously, the college was in Haworth’s hometown, even if they didn’t have a weightlifting team.
“It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to go there. I went to an art/design and performing arts high school.
“People are often surprised that I am a weightlifter and an artist. I used to draw weightlifting and learnt more through visualising it through art.
“In a nutshell, my life has either been drawing, or drawing on my strength.”