At 5 feet 1 and 105 pounds, Tara Nott Cunningham wears pink toenail polish as she describes in a gentle, almost childlike voice a lifetime of sports that led her to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
What's remarkable isn't that Cunningham won gold in a sport she took up only after abandoning her dreams of being an Olympic gymnast or soccer player; it's that she won gold in the same sport as her bronze-medal winning friend, Cheryl Haworth, who stands 5-9, weighs roughly 300 pounds, boasts a 30-inch vertical leap and can do the full splits. Their sport? Weightlifting.
On the eve of the Athens Olympics, where they will once again represent the United States, Cunningham and Haworth are a powerful rebuttal to misconceptions about what weightlifting entails and what female athletes can achieve.
"I just want to send a message to young girls that really anything is possible," said Cunningham, 32, who in 2000 became the first U.S. athlete to win weightlifting gold in 40 years.
How can two women with such different physiques rank among the world's best at the same sport? Largely because Olympic weightlifting is more complex than many realize. It's not bodybuilding, that greased-up display of flexed muscle mass that's a staple of cable TV. It's not power lifting, either, where athletes hoist as much weight as possible without regard to form or control.
It's a discipline that requires far more all-around athletic ability -- speed, flexibility, explosiveness and power -- than it does brute strength. But that's hard to explain, concedes Cunningham, who has grown used to the incredulous stares and full-body scans when she tells people she's a weightlifter.
"So many people say, 'You are?' " she says. "It's like I have to convince them that I lift weights. There's this perception of what a weightlifter is supposed to look like."
Haworth has her share of skeptics, too -- particularly when she begs off helping friends move by telling them she's not much good at lifting couches. "People think we're really strong, and we definitely are," says Haworth, 21. "But most of us are better athletes than we are just really strong."
There's no ideal shape or size for competitive weightlifters. There are seven classes for women, ranging from flyweight (105 pounds) to super heavyweight (more than 165.5 pounds). Men's weightlifting has eight classes, from bantamweight (123 pounds) to super heavyweight (unlimited weight).
At the Olympics, each contestant gets three chances to perform two mandatory lifts. In the snatch, contestants lift the bar from the floor to above their head in one motion and hold it there for two seconds. The clean and jerk is a two-part motion: First the bar is raised to collarbone height; then, with a thrust from the arms and legs, it's raised overhead until both arms are fully extended.
Of course, neither Cunningham nor Haworth knew these fine points until they stumbled onto the sport years ago.
Haworth, a native of Savannah, Ga., was a 12-year-old softball player when she went to a local gym for a workout and was pegged by a coach as having great potential as a weightlifter. She proved him right, going on to win the national junior championships in 1999.
Cunningham played nearly every sport growing up -- training as an elite gymnast before giving it up to focus on soccer, while playing basketball and volleyball, as well. An all-American at Colorado College, she competed in two NCAA soccer championships and three U.S. Olympic festivals but failed to make the 1996 Olympic team. So she went to work for the Atlanta Olympic Committee just to be near the Games. During her month-long stay in Atlanta she asked a coach to recommend something she could do to stay in shape. He suggested weightlifting, and she plunged in.
Haworth was the more seasoned competitor when women's weightlifting made its Olympic debut in 2000. Cunningham, known then as Tara Nott, was thrilled just to make the team. She sat with a towel over her head during the competition to avoid seeing how the other women in her weight class did. So it came as a shock when her coach tapped her and told her she had won silver. Three days later, she got a phone call informing her that Bulgaria's Izabela Dragneva, who won gold, had failed a drug test and been stripped of the medal. The gold was hers.
Cunningham turned in her silver medal as requested, but skipped the ceremony at which she was to be awarded the gold. The timing conflicted with Haworth's competition in the super heavyweight class, and she didn't want to miss it.
"That was amazing," Haworth said. "When I found that out, I was surprised. But then I started thinking about it, I wasn't surprised at all. She's my teammate, and she's a great person. It makes sense, but I was still very humbled and honored."
Four years later, Haworth and Cunningham remain the country's best. Last month, they cruised through qualifying for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, with no other women seriously challenging for the two allocated spots. Haworth lifted a total of 600.7 pounds -- 270 in the snatch and 330.7 in the clean and jerk. Cunningham hoisted a total of 391.2 pounds. But they'll need to do better in Athens in order to replicate their success in Sydney four years ago.
Injury has been an enormous hurdle for both.
Cunningham isn't fully recovered from a torn abdominal muscle she suffered in November 1999. It wasn't diagnosed until after the 2000 Games, and she was presented with the choice of retiring or undergoing a complex surgical procedure that involved anchoring a piece of Gortex mesh into her abdomen with 21 titanium screws. She chose surgery, and her muscles appear to have re-knitted.
Haworth tore two ligaments in her left elbow at the junior world championships in June 2003. It happened during her last snatch of the competition. She made the lift, but felt the ligaments snap. Surgery followed, and she didn't start lifting competitively again until March.
"I feel as good as I can," Haworth said. "I still feel completely capable of going in there and doing what I need to do to get a medal -- if not the gold medal."
Yet while Cunningham and Haworth have been working to regain their form, the rest of the world has worked on improving theirs.
"It's going to be a little harder this time for them because the world is starting to put a lot more money and time into women's weightlifting," said the United States' best hope for a medal on the men's side, super heavyweight Shane Hamman of Mustang, Okla. "But our girls are good. They have the technique and the lifts down. They're still at the top of their game, and I can see both of them medalling."
If so, Cunningham's 2004 medal will likely be relegated to the kitchen drawer, where her gold medal from Sydney shares space with playing cards, tape, scissors and stamps. It has been passed around classrooms so often that the ribbon has frayed and some of the gold has rubbed off.
"I let anyone put it on and let it be passed around the classroom," she says. "If the medal was lost, that wouldn't take away the fact that I won at the Olympics. Kids like to touch it and rub it like it's a magic lantern. And I'm going to know maybe it inspired their dreams."