Weightlifter attempting return after surgery

Updated: July 14, 2004, 9:45 PM ET
Associated Press

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.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press