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Weightlifter attempting return after surgery

7/14/2004

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Since she was last seen in Sydney holding
an Olympic gold medal she didn't expect to win, Tara Cunningham has
undergone surgery, gotten married, moved and temporarily
contemplated retirement.
The weightlifting champion at 105½ pounds (48 kg) is back -- with
a new name -- and ready to defend her title, even though she has
already begun thinking about taking up yet another sport once her
heavy lifting days are done. Judo, maybe, or karate?
Of course, that probably was to be expected from what might be
the most versatile athlete on the entire American Olympic team.
The only athlete to train at U.S. Olympic centers in three
sports, Cunningham (formerly Tara Nott) seemingly thrives on
challenges and a constant reorganization of her life.
She probably would get bored if she did nothing but go through
the athlete's usual routine of endless training, rest and
occasional competition. Talk with her for five minutes, and it's
easy to see that's about how long she can sit still.
``A lot has changed for me,'' Cunningham said. ``The surgeries,
getting married, moving to Michigan. But I think that, through all
of it, I've grown.''
Well, actually, she hasn't. She's still so tiny -- she's 5-foot-1
and barely 100 pounds -- that it almost seems that 290-pound U.S.
super heavyweight weightlifter Cheryl Haworth could easily lift her
in the palm of a hand.
The two Olympic medalists -- Haworth got a bronze at age 17 in
Sydney -- couldn't be much different off the lifting stand, yet have
formed a friendship they think will help drive the other in Athens.
They are the only two U.S. women weightlifters to qualify for the
2004 Olympics.
Haworth, 11 years younger than the 32-year-old Cunningham, is a
talented artist and acknowledged free spirit who studies at the
Savannah (Ga.) Arts Academy and once played competitive softball.
When she's not training, she'll pack up her car and head to the
beach.
More laid back than Cunningham, she joked she was completely
relaxed at the recent U.S. Olympic team trials until Cunningham
began ``stressing me out ... making me anxious'' when several other
lifters put pressure on them.
But while Haworth settled into weightlifting early in her teen
years, Cunningham initially tried gymnastics, then soccer, and
didn't try lifting weights until her mid-20s. A native of Stilwell,
Kan., she was good enough to play soccer at Division I Colorado
College and for the U.S. under-16 and under-19 national teams.
She didn't get into weightlifting until after the Atlanta
Olympics, only to quickly realize her combination of speed,
strength and flexibility were perfect for the sport. Less than four
years later, she won a silver medal in Sydney that became a gold
when champion Isabela Dragneva of Bulgaria failed a drug test and
was stripped of the medal.
Despite finally winning the medal she had twice changed sports
to get, Cunningham skipped the makeshift awards ceremony so she
could watch Haworth compete. A U.S. Olympics official got the medal
to her a few days later.
``That really meant a lot to me,'' said Haworth, who was clearly
moved by Cunningham's team-comes-first display in what is a very
individual sport.
Those who know Cunningham weren't surprised, saying it
illustrates the commitment that allowed her to medal in what still
was a relatively new sport to her.
That same perseverance reluctantly dragged her away from her
husband of less than a year -- wrestler Casey Cunningham, an
assistant coach at Eastern Michigan -- and their new home in Mount
Pleasant, Mich., to train for three months this year in Colorado
Springs.
Cunningham felt she needed the strenuous training if she was to
challenge again for a medal. Her lifts at the U.S. team trials in
May were five to 10 pounds below her U.S. record-setting lifts at
the 2000 trials, when she raised a combined 407½ pounds in her two
best lifts, and more than 20 pounds off the world records set last
fall by China's Li Zhuo.
``I still have a lot of improvement to make for Athens,''
Cunningham said. ``I know 97½ kg (214½ pounds, her lift at the U.S.
trials) in the clean and jerk isn't going to cut it and I need to
be doing a lot more in August.''
At least she no longer has the excruciating pain she had at
Sydney, where she competed with a badly torn abdomen. Three months
after the 2000 Games, surgeons permanently attached mesh across her
abdominal wall to repair the tear. The operation is commonly
performed on soccer and hockey players, but she was only the fourth
woman in the United States to have it.
The mesh is attached by 20 titanium screws, and doctors don't
know if it will expand properly if she becomes pregnant. She and
her husband plan to start a family after Athens.
First, though, she is looking forward to competing in Greece,
where weightlifting is such a major sport that a large arena was
built in suburban Nikaia just for the Olympics. In the past two
Olympics, the sport was held at large convention centers in
makeshift arenas.
``The sport is going to be huge there,'' she said. ``I'm really
looking forward to it.''
She only wishes her husband were competing, too. Casey
Cunningham lost in the semifinals of the 163-pound challenge
tournament at the U.S. trials, missing the chance to wrestle U.S.
champion and trials winner Joe Williams for a trip to Athens.
``I'm so much more nervous when Casey competes,'' she said. ``I
would (have been) so excited if he had made the team. If we both
made it, it would have been so unbelievable.''