"Strong!" challenges notions of fitness

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Cheryl Haworth, battling knee and shoulder injuries, finished sixth in the Beijing Games in 2008.

"All the men are always trying to get big and strong. But all the women, they're always trying to get smaller. There's no such thing in this culture as being big and strong and completely and totally accepted as a woman. No matter how much you can kick everybody's ass."

-- Cheryl Haworth in the documentary "Strong!"

Many sports fans remember Cheryl Haworth, the teenage women's weightlifting sensation who burst onto the scene 14 years ago. Haworth won her first American weightlifting championship at age 15 and became a media sensation two years later when she won a bronze medal during the sport's Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000.

With her winning smile and a personality as large as her super heavyweight physique of 5-foot-8, 300 pounds, Haworth became instantly recognizable and lauded for her athletic achievements. She also represented a different type of athlete -- one who decidedly did not fit American culture's normal standards of athleticism and fitness.

Filmmaker Julie Wyman, a professor of Cinema and Technocultural Studies at UC Davis and a sports fan, found herself fascinated by the contradictory image Haworth presented at the 2000 Olympic Games.

"Cheryl's image of the 300-pound, 17-year-old girl who was confident about her body and also really excellent at this sport is what really spoke to me," Wyman said. "She really goes against the grain of what we expect an athlete looks like, and it opened the door to thinking about expanding the narrow range of bodies that get to be included as powerful and as valuable and as skilled."

In the documentary "Strong!", which Wyman started filming in 2004, we learn about women's weightlifting and follow Haworth on her competitive journey for the next five years. Wyman ended up with more than 200 hours of film, which she has edited into a compelling 75-minute documentary that is rolling out in cities around the U.S. and will make its debut on PBS on Thursday.

Haworth, whose outgoing, funny, personable and honest personality comes through in every frame of the film, had no problem agreeing to be the subject of Wyman's documentary.

"I felt like I could be very honest with Julie and I trusted her in a way that a subject has to trust a filmmaker," Haworth said. "I sensed that she was pursuing her passions in a very honest way and I was never worried she was going to cobble together something that would ever make me feel uncomfortable or be sort of odd in any sort of way. And also frankly, I kind of like the attention."

AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

Cheryl Haworth burst onto the scene by winning a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, presenting a new image of a successful female athlete.

The film culminates with Haworth's final appearance, in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (she finished sixth), and her retirement as a result of injuries. While Haworth is the focus of the film, "Strong!" has a universal appeal beyond the world of women's weightlifting.

"The overarching theme of the film has nothing to do with me personally," Haworth said. "It's a story that a lot of athletes can tell. What comes through in the film is really how to deal with being disappointed when something is your life and it's not working out the way that you've planned and how to pull yourself through that with some form of dignity and grace. It's a little bit about perseverance and dealing with the reality of things and trying not to let it upset you too much."

"Strong!" also shows off Haworth's softer, artistic side. In addition to being a three-time Olympian and a national weightlifting champion for 11 consecutive years, from 1998 to 2008, Haworth is a gifted artist with a degree in historic preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she now works as an admissions representative.

"There's something therapeutic about that yin and yang," Haworth said. "Something where you're totally explosive and aggressive and then something that allows you to pull it back in and be quiet and still and thoughtful is a good dynamic to have. In that way, by virtue of being so different in weightlifting, it made me a better, more well-rounded athlete."

The film depicts Haworth's challenges in the gym as she trains for her third Olympics while dealing with devastating injuries to her knee and shoulder, and the audience watches as Haworth struggles to find confidence in her body, given the stigmas against larger women. In one particularly poignant moment, Haworth admits to having trouble balancing her athletic success with society's norms as she comes to grips with her life beyond weightlifting.

"I do want to be smaller," Haworth says to the camera. "It ties in with being more or less unhappy in my body. 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 somewhere."

This transformation from confident champion to insecure woman surprised Wyman during the course of the filming.

"She starts out with this really unusual ability to be fully confident in the body she has," Wyman said. "Then as time goes on and as she battles with these injuries and she realizes she's going to be retiring, she realizes it's really hard to be 300 pounds in this world and try to buy clothes. All the sort of basic things of being a woman in society become more relevant to her as she looks at leaving the sport. A woman who had so inspired me now has to deal with wanting to lose weight and wishing she had a different body."

Despite the occasional moment of self-doubt, Haworth proves herself to be not only a champion competitor but also a compelling documentary subject, comfortable in front of the camera and in her own skin. Both the filmmaker and the subject hope that "Strong!" can provide women with a new image of physical fitness, strength and beauty, and also with the confidence to challenge themselves.

"As a whole, we can have just a bit more confidence and believe in ourselves just a little bit more and not be afraid of becoming strong in whatever way strong means," Haworth said. "I don't necessarily mean physically, but there's a difficulty to life. It's just managing that and it's equipping yourself to be able to deal with whatever happens. You're not going to make your life easier by avoiding difficulty. Those difficult moments are just going to change shape, so you might as well challenge yourself."

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