SYDNEY, Australia — Cheryl Haworth stands 5 feet 9, weighs 300 pounds, could very well win an Olympic medal in weightlifting and happily posed for photos last week wearing a shiny sleeveless peach bridesmaid's dress.
This is no anorexic gymnastics pixie. This is a 17-year-old from Savannah, Ga., who excels at art as well as lifting and by all accounts seems to be incredibly well-adjusted. She's indisputably well-spoken. And she says she intends to do well at the Games because she's not only big but fast, strong, flexible and focused.
"I feel I have as good a chance of winning as anyone else," she said at a news conference a few days ago. "Right now, I'm very confident."
Haworth's poise and assurance contradict the notion--often pushed by fashion magazines and on TV--that for women, thin is always in.
She has bantered with Jay Leno on the "Tonight Show" and kibitzed with Regis Philbin in the morning. Asked this week how many interviews she has done in recent months, she replied: "How many stars are there in the sky?"
At last week's opening ceremony, as the athletes assembled on the field, track star Marion Jones--perhaps the only woman on the United States team who has gotten more pre-Games publicity than Haworth--sidled up to the teenager.
"She told me her husband [shotputter C.J. Hunter] is a big fan," Haworth said. "I was just standing there and she turned around and said, 'By the way, good luck.' That was really cool."
More important, she said, are the letters she now gets frequently that tell her she's an inspiration. One sits on her dresser at home, a reminder for her on the impact she has on people who know her only from afar.
"A woman wrote me and told me she was excited about me after watching qualifications," she said. "She said it made her realize she never picked up a sport and stuck with it."
She also said: "I like the attention. There's never too much."
Haworth has been a weightlifter for only four years. As a youngster, Haworth said, she played a lot of basketball and softball.
"I was very active, always running around," she said. "I felt I was stronger than other people. When the catcher was blocking the plate, it was no problem to run right over."
At 13, a coach suggested she do some weightlifting--as cross training for the upcoming season. "It looked like fun," she said, "something I could do."
She got good fast. She holds American records in the snatch (120 kilograms, or 264 pounds), clean and jerk (145 kilos, or 319 pounds) and total (265 kilos, 583 pounds). In the snatch the barbell is raised in one constant motion; in the clean-and-jerk, the bar is raised to the collarbone, then overhead.
During a normal 2 1/2-hour workout, according to the NBC Olympic Web site, www.nbcolympics.com, Haworth lifts as much as 25 tons--the equivalent, the Web site said, of an F-15 fighter jet or five African elephants.
At the Pan American Games last summer in Winnipeg, Canada, Haworth won gold. At the 1999 World Championships last November in Athens, she was the only U.S. lifter to win a medal, a bronze in the snatch. (Olympic medals are not awarded for the individual lifts, only for the combined total of snatch and clean-and-jerk.)
The Sydney Olympics mark the debut of women's weightlifting at the Games. U.S. teammate Tara Knott, competing in the flyweight class (48 kilos, or 105 1/2 pounds), won a silver medal Sunday. Haworth and the other super-heavyweights, including Agata Wrobel of Poland and China's Ding Meiyuan, lift Friday.
Among the super-heavyweights, the 19-year-old Wrobel currently holds the world No. 1 ranking. Ding, 20, is second. Third is Wang Yanmei of China. Haworth is fourth.
Earlier this year, at the junior world championships in Prague, Wrobel, who weighs about 265 pounds, lifted a combined 638 pounds--a world record. The International Weightlifting Federation Web site called that performance "the absolute best [result] of all times in the history of women's weightlifting."
"No matter what happens here at the Games, if I feel I did my best, I'll be satisfied, no matter what," Haworth said.
Conventional wisdom in weightlifting is that big men and women don't hit their peak until their late 20s. But, Haworth said, "Right now, my goal is the 2000 Olympics. I'm looking at it as my last chance. I don't want to assume I have another one."