Julie Wyman is a filmmaker, performer, and scholar whose work investigates the body: locating, exploring, and inventing various situations in which the codes, conditions, and visceral experiences of physicality defy expectation. The University of California-Davis assistant professor’s latest documentary, Strong! premieres on the PBS series Independent Lens July 26.
“I saw coverage about Cheryl (Haworth) after the 2000 Olympics and her image spoke to me. I realized I wanted to learn more about the person who seemed to have accomplished in her youth.” Introduced to weightlifting while strength training as a softball player in 1996, within two years she had won her first two Junior National titles and placed fourth at the Junior Worlds as a 15-year-old. In 1998 Cheryl Haworth set her first American records and went on to claim all of the American School-Age, Junior and Senior records in the +75kg division as well as all of the Pan American records at +75kg. During her career, which began at the age of 14, Haworth remained undefeated in U.S. competition, where she won 12 consecutive Senior National titles, beginning with her first in 1999.
Haworth made history in Sydney in 2000 when she became the youngest athlete at 17 years old to win an Olympic weightlifting medal (a bronze medal). A formidable figure at 5 feet and 8 inches tall and weighing more than 300 pounds, Haworth allowed Wyman to document the highs of her spectacular rise to the lows of battling injuries. Strong! explores the challenges this unusual elite athlete faces: coming to terms with a body that is celebrated within her sport but shunned by mainstream culture. “She has had success in a non-traditional sport for women while having a body size that is not traditional for women either. When I looked her up on the Internet, I found her coach and thought I would tackle a short portrait piece on her before the 2004 Olympics,” Wyman says.
Following her win in Sydney, Haworth’s career gathered momentum. But while competing in Mexico and attempting an American record of 286 pounds she tore two ligaments in her left arm during the 2003 games.
Haworth not only won the 2004 Senior Nationals, but qualified for the Athens Olympic Games where she placed sixth. With an uncertain future in a sport that demands complete confidence, Haworth fought back, eventually breaking both the Pan American and U.S. records, she successfully lifted 354 pounds at the 2005 Pan American Games. In 2005, Haworth returned to setting American records en route to winning a bronze medal at the Senior Worlds in Doha, Qatar. Haworth remained undefeated in the United States through 2008 when she qualified for her third consecutive Olympic Team. Competing in Beijing, Haworth battled injuries to place sixth overall. In 2010 Haworth retired from the sport.
Wyman spent time learning about weightlifting, the weight classes and the individual lifters. Haworth and Wyman formed a strong relationship. “She is not the standard size and shape. Girls and women need role models. Why not someone athletic and powerful? I thought she had an unshakeable confidence, but her story is about her relationship with her body image,” she says.
Wyman says her role is complicated and ever-changing. “I see myself as a storyteller, but as time goes by, I become a confidant for my subject. Then I become a promoter and agent for the person and the story. Really first and foremost, the role of storyteller is most accurate as I observe the human struggle and find out how to share the struggles and the triumphs with integrity. I wanted to do justice to the sport of weightlifting. I wanted to uphold Cheryl and her family in a positive light. I wanted to share a film with an audience that may or may not be athletes. However, many of us understand the struggles, the disappointments and even the injuries.”
Haworth travels with Wyman on promotional tours, showing the documentary to many audiences, including those that are part of the Community Cinema. As for the documentary as part of Independent Lens, Wyman says she is excited to know that about 1.2 million households will tune into the late July viewing. Haworth currently works as a recruiter for the Savannah College of Art and Design, her alma mater. l