Tara Nott lifts the bar in the Women's 48kg Weightlifting Event at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 on Sept. 17, 2000 in Sydney.
The Cunningham household in State College, Pennsylvania, celebrates every September 17.
It’s Asher’s birthday and he’s 14 years old today. It’s also a reminder to his mom of something that happened before she even met Asher’s dad.
“It’s just a weird thing - it’s now become my second son’s birthday and not the day I competed at the Olympics and won the gold medal,” said Tara Nott-Cunningham, 48, who has five children with husband Casey Cunningham, an assistant wrestling coach at Penn State.
This is the 20th anniversary of that historic victory, the first Olympic gold medal won by a woman in the sport of weightlifting.
The feat was so momentous that Nott-Cunningham heard she was once a “Jeopardy!” answer.
After a hard-fought campaign, women’s weightlifting finally made its debut at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000.
Nott-Cunningham, then known as Tara Nott, competed in the flyweight division – 48 kilograms/106 pounds.
With just five years of weightlifting under her belt, the former gymnast and soccer player became the first Olympic gold medalist in the sport for Team USA since Chuck Vinci in 1960.
“Tara kind of came out of nowhere,” said her coach, Mike Gattone.
Technically, Nott-Cunningham was awarded the silver medal on September 17. She became Olympic champion five days later after the original winner, Izabela Dragneva of Bulgaria, tested positive for a diuretic, furosemide, and was stripped of the gold.
Nott-Cunningham heard the news when an official from USA Weightlifting called her cell phone while she was sightseeing in Sydney with her family.
“They said, ‘Is this Tara Nott, the Olympic gold medalist?’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘No,’ and they said, ‘Well, you are now.’”
Nott-Cunningham said it was just settling in that she’d won the silver medal and to suddenly be upgraded to gold “was something I was completely surprised by. But I knew within any sport, with drug testing anything can change.”
Sevdalin Minchev, a men’s weightlifting bronze medalist from Bulgaria, had also tested positive for a diuretic and the country’s entire weightlifting team was eventually sent home. Diuretics are used to cut weight and are also suspected to be masking agents for other performance-enhancing substances.
“A lot of people say, ‘Are you upset you missed your gold medal ceremony?’” Nott-Cunningham said. “I’m like, ‘No, because I did have a medal ceremony.’ I did experience standing - maybe not at the top of the podium - but in second place and seeing the flag raised. I didn’t hear the national anthem, but we can always look at the positives of it. It’s not so much, ‘Oh, I missed this and this and this.’ I got to experience so much, so I can’t complain.”
Olympic officials scheduled a replacement award ceremony for Nott-Cunningham at the Olympic Village later on the same day she found out. But it was at a time that conflicted with the women’s super-heavyweight final featuring Team USA’s Cheryl Haworth.
Naturally, Nott-Cunningham skipped the ceremony and went to the arena to cheer for Haworth, who came away with her own bronze medal. Someone else stood in for Nott-Cunningham at the Olympic Village and she was handed her new gold medal later.
“It was important for me to go support Cheryl,” Nott-Cunningham said. “There were four of us competing in weightlifting for the first time and we were a team.”
Adidas later sponsored a USA Weightlifting team event that included a medal ceremony. The medal was placed around Nott-Cunningham’s neck and “The Star-Spangled Banner” played as her family watched.
“That was really fun,” she said, “but I’m more of a shy person and for me it was just so awkward getting on the medal stand by myself. But I was so grateful for them doing that.”
Nott-Cunningham has empathy for athletes who receive upgraded medals years later.
She also knows that other athletes train just as hard as she did, but don’t have the same outcome.
“I don’t think the medal totally defines my experience as an Olympian,” Nott-Cunningham said. “That’s the end goal, but I think the process to it is one of the most important things.”
The Next Nadia?
That process began when she was 4 years old and watching television coverage of Nadia Comaneci competing at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976.
“I went out in the yard, and I told my mom, ‘Look! No hands!’” Nott-Cunningham said. “I tried an aerial cartwheel and landed on my head, and so she enrolled me in gymnastics. I wasn’t thinking I wanted to be at the Olympics. I was just thinking, ‘I want to try this. This looks like a lot of fun.’”
Nott-Cunningham was a gymnast for 10 years before taking up soccer. She went on to play forward and defender for Colorado College, a Division I program where she competed in two Final Fours.
Again, Nott-Cunningham didn’t harbor dreams of playing in the Olympics. Instead, straight out of college, she took a job with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games in 1994 as an assistant in the department planning the soccer competition.
She is quite possibly the only employee of an Olympic organizing committee in a particular sport to qualify for the next Olympic Games in an entirely different sport.
“I was wanting to still stay in shape,” said Nott-Cunningham, whose only experience with weightlifting had been watching 350-pound Vasily Alekseyev of the Soviet Union compete on “Wide World of Sports.” “I liked trying new things, so I was talking with Lyn Jones and Mike Gattone, who also worked in the sports department for weightlifting. They were like, ‘Oh, you should try weightlifting.’ I said, ‘I’ll give it a try.’”
That’s not how Gattone remembers it.
“It was her idea from Day 1,” he said.
At a get-together in 1995 at a Mexican restaurant for the ACOG sports department, he recalled, “She was right in our faces – “Hey, I’d love to do this. Can you teach me this? I still want to have a sport.’”
Gattone explained that he was in Atlanta to plan the Games. “She kept bugging me,” he said. So Gattone told Nott-Cunningham to join him for workouts at Coffee’s Gym, a well-known training facility in an Atlanta suburb. He figured he could shake her with the 6:30 a.m. start time.
He couldn’t. Gattone was impressed by the 23-year-old’s work ethic and her potential.
“The quality of her explosiveness combined with her competitiveness, her internal fortitude, her athletic background and her physical ability to put on muscle - I think all those things went together for her in a very magical way,” he said.
“After a very short time, I stopped working out concurrently and said, ‘I’m just going to focus on this kid,’ and that was it.’”