This year in Sydney there will be two more signs that these aren't the Victorian Olympics. For the first time, women will compete in weight lifting and the pole vault, once thought of as two of the highest-testosterone events of the Summer Games. Poised to make Olympic history are two American women who came to their sports via goat roping and tree-house building. Since those events aren't yet sanctioned, lifter Cheryl Haworth and vaulter Stacy Dragila will have to settle for medals in what used to be exclusively male pursuits.
Haworth busted the gender barrier a couple years ago in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., to the amazement of the local Y chromosomes. Men and teenage boys are, in fact, her biggest fans. At 17 this high school senior is already the world's best junior weight lifter, and she aims to be Olympic champion. "She's the best woman lifter I've ever seen," says her coach, Mike Cohen, a former Olympian who now runs Team Savannah, one of the country's top weight-lifting centers.
Haworth, at 5 ft. 10 in. and 300 lbs., is an exceptional athlete in a body that screams couch potato. As a high school softball player, she was so good that kids called her "the Arm," but Haworth wasn't satisfied with the game. Her dad, knowing she had always been interested in those bodybuilding TV shows, took her to see Cohen in 1996. When Haworth lifted a bar with more than 100 lbs. on it "like it was a loaf of bread," he knew he'd found a keeper.
And Haworth discovered a purpose. "It took me a while, but I finally found something that someone my size can be very good at," says Haworth. "It's an individual and straightforward sport: either you can lift the weight or you can't." Haworth uses her speed (she can run the 40-yd. dash in an NFL-like 5 sec.) and her power (she can jump an NBA-like 34 in.) to routinely, and repeatedly, lift a groaning bar with a couple hundred pounds. Buff football players pass by, not even bothering to hide their admiration. In competition she has lifted 264 lbs. in the snatch (lifting the weight overhead in one motion) and 319 lbs. in the clean and jerk (lifting the weight first to the chest, then over head).
While Haworth discovered weight lifting, Stacey Dragila was using coordination honed by years of goat roping at rodeos in a different contortion: pole vaulting. Dragila started experimenting with vaulting in the early 1990s after enjoying only modest success as a heptathlete. She is drawn to the daredevil aspect of the sport. "I think women have brought a lot of life back into the sport--first, because a lot of people doubted women could actually do it well. Two, part of it is that odd fascination some people have in watching athletes risk injury to win." Dragila, 29, is doing something right: she holds the world record of 15 ft. 1 3/4 in. and is the favorite for gold.
While Dragila won't be competing against men this summer, it is men she has to thank for getting her to the vaunted position she holds. "Growing up in rural Idaho, I had to keep up--and put up--with my brother and all his friends. I got tough physically and mentally, and it's one reason why I'm so aggressive and competitive." It was also her male coach, Dave Nielsen, who first suggested she try the pole vault. "I admit the women aren't anywhere near the men in height [the men's record is 20 ft. 1 3/4 in.]," says Dragila, "but I've got the words World Record next to my name, and that's something all athletes would like."
Neither Dragila nor Haworth promotes herself as a pioneer, in part because both realize they're just the first of what should be a long line of female athletes to follow. "We've proved women can do anything, but we're just setting the stage for younger athletes who will come after us," says Dragila. And hoping today's young girls don't have to wait another century to compete in every sport.