At 5’9″ and nearly 300 pounds, weightlifter Cheryl Haworth tends to be described in ways that aren’t usually applied approvingly to women — she’s big, sturdy, and, as the title of tonight’s PBS documentary about her proclaims, “Strong!”
And it’s something Haworth has embraced, though not without complications. “Strong!” is directed by Julie Wyman and airs this evening, July 26th, at 9pm in most markets (though you might want to check your local listings) to close out the 2011-12 season of Independent Lens. It’s been scheduled to coincide with the start of the Olympics for good reason — at age 17, Haworth competed in the 2000 Sydney Games, winning a bronze medal fo the US in the first year that women’s weightlifting was offered.
A young woman whose life has revolved around her sport (when asked about romance, she’s ruefully notes it’s been “nonexistent”), Haworth spends the film readying for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, working with her trainer and moving to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado where she deals with injuries and the reality that her competitive career is coming to an end. She’s an astounding athlete, but weightlifting isn’t a sport that translates all that compellingly to screen in the events that we see. “Strong!” is at its most interesting when contemplating what it’s like for something that benefits your sport — size — to cause you to feel out of place in the rest of your life.
Charismatic and outgoing (her nickname is “Fun”), Haworth is shown talking about her weight unabashedly in talk shows and joking to the camera about breaking furniture “all the time” and wearing the largest offering in a store’s plus-size range. But other times she reveals she’s less comfortable with her size: “It’s not how I want to be physically but it’s very good for what I do, so you begin to hate what you do because it’s keeping you trapped.” “There’s no such thing in this culture as being big and strong and completely and totally accepted as a woman,” she sighs, “no matter how much you can kick everybody’s ass.”
Haworth is so funny, so tough and so forthright that it’s a little heartbreaking to hear her confess how much she’d just like to “get whistled at every now and again,” as dry-eyed and unself-pitying a place as the sentiment comes from. Her story serves as an nice insight into the dilemmas faced by so many of the world-class athletes we’ll watch compete in the next two weeks who make huge sacrifices to compete in events that don’t have fame or fortune attached to them. When this giant thing that shaped your identity and the way you lived your life inevitably comes to an end, it has to be both frightening and exhilarating to have to figure out what’s next. But Haworth’s fundamental solidity — of personality, not form — is itself a truly beautiful thing.