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Sydney Surprise: 20 Years Ago Tara Nott Became First Female Weightlifting Olympic Gold Medalist In History

By Karen Rosen | Sept. 17, 2020, 2:01 p.m. (ET)

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.

 

No Complaints

“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.’”

I’m so thankful there were people before me that paved that way for me to be one of the first females to compete at the Olympics in the sport in weightlifting.

Tara Nott-Cunningham

Success Came Quickly

While sneaking in workouts three or four days a week, Nott-Cunningham began going to competitions and moving up in the U.S. weightlifting ranks.

After the Atlanta Games, when Gattone moved to Chicago, Nott-Cunningham went, too, initially staying with him and his wife. After about a year and a half, a program began at the U.S.

Olympic Training Center and Gattone encouraged Nott-Cunningham to go back to Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was a place she knew well. She is the only athlete who has trained at the center in three sports.

“That’s when her total really started jumping through the roof,” Gattone said. When Nott-Cunningham picked up the sport, women’s weightlifting was not in the Olympics. But soon after, it won approval for the Sydney program.

Still, she said, “I wasn’t thinking I was going to the Olympics. I had just started. It was something that I thought was really challenging and fun.”

Nott-Cunningham liked learning the technical skills and enjoyed the mental aspects of the sport. “Each day it was, ‘Can I increase this weight a little more or can I do this movement a little better?’”

By 2000, Nott-Cunningham was one of four women to qualify for Team USA. She achieved personal bests at the Olympic Trials of 82.5kg in snatch and 102.5kg in clean and jerk.

At 48 kg, she was joined by veteran weightlifter Robin Goad (formerly Robin Byrd), who won the gold medal in the 50kg division at the first world championships for women in 1994 and claimed a world bronze in 1998 at 53kg.

“Robin had done so much, as well as other people that were in the sport before I even knew about weightlifting,” Nott-Cunningham said. “They fought hard for the inclusion of women in the Olympics. I’m so thankful there were people before me that paved that way for me to be one of the first females to compete at the Olympics in the sport in weightlifting.”

 

A Chance at a Medal

While female weightlifters were thrilled to be part of the Games, there were restrictions. Each nation could only enter four of the seven weight classes, so China decided not to bring Liu Xiuhua, the world record holder at 48kg, to Sydney.

Bulgaria’s top lifter in the category, world champion Donka Mincheva, was coming off an appendectomy. Although she competed in Sydney, she failed to make a lift.

With those athletes now non-factors, Nott-Cunningham said the Team USA coaches “were maybe thinking bronze medal if you had a good day.”

During the competition, she sat with towel over my head. She didn’t want to know what anyone else had done.

Lifters get only three attempts in snatch and three in clean and jerk and their coaches decide what they should do.

“It’s like a chess match of moving your weights and attempts,” Nott-Cunningham said.

In snatch, she opened at 80kg, which was high for her, but a weight her coaches deemed necessary if she wanted to be in the mix. She made it, then missed 82.5kg on her second attempt.

Before her final attempt in snatch, Nott-Cunningham closed her eyes for several seconds and took a deep breath.

“I had worked a lot prior to going to the Olympics on visualization, mental preparation and trying to calm myself down,” she said, “not letting my emotions take over in that tense situation.”

Nott-Cunningham was successful at 82.5kg – tying her personal best, then moved to the clean and jerk. After lifting 102.5, also tying her PR, to finish with a total of 185kg, she remembers being mad that she missed her attempt at 105.

“That’s when my coaches said, ‘You’re in second place,’” Nott-Cunningham said. “I didn’t even realize it.”

After watching a couple of other athletes miss, she clinched the silver.

“I was in shock,” Nott-Cunningham said.

Now the record books list her as the Olympic champion, with Dragneva an asterisk.

“Tara did it the right way,” said Gattone, who is now Senior Director Sport Performance and Coaching Education for USA Weightlifting.

After the Sydney Games, she met Cunningham, who was a wrestler, at the Olympic Training Center. After a long-distance courtship when he moved to Michigan to coach, they got married in 2003.

 

Two-time Olympian

Nott-Cunningham continued with the sport through 2004.

She said one reason she didn’t retire was that she wanted to see what she could do when she was healthy. Unbeknownst to most people, Nott-Cunningham was injured when she competed in Sydney. A torn abdominal muscle was not diagnosed until three months after the Games and Nott-Cunningham then underwent surgery for bilateral hernia repair.

“It was a long journey that year - Am I going to even make it to the Olympics?” she said. “There were times I couldn’t train much, so I would take time off and try to just heal. I had trained a full year not knowing why it hurt, and so after the surgery it was really the challenge of ‘What level can I get back to?’”

Nott-Cunningham made her second U.S. Olympic team and placed 10th at the Olympic Games Athens 2004.

Twenty years after her gold medal, Nott-Cunningham’s personal bests would be competitive today. She still holds American records in clean and jerk (102.5) and total (185) in the 48 kg bodyweight category. She held the record in snatch until 2016, when Morghan King broke it with a lift of 83kg at the Olympic Games Rio De Janeiro, where she placed sixth. Teammate Sarah Robles won a bronze in the +75kg category for the first Team USA medal since NottCunningham and Haworth in 2000.

For a long time, Nott-Cunningham kept her gold medal close by – in the junk drawer in her kitchen.

“It was just in a place where I could remember where it was,” Nott-Cunningham said. “My youngest daughter a couple of times has grabbed it and walked around, ‘Look at my necklace.’ I’m like, ‘You need to put that back.’”

But she does share the medal with kids when she makes school visits. “I allow everyone to touch it, put it on if they want to,” she said.

After Asher’s birthday party, the celebration continues Saturday with Sterling turning 7. The other Cunningham kids are Hayden, 15, Ryder, 12, and Saige, 9.

Three are taller than their 5-foot-1 mother. Two wrestle and two like gymnastics.

“None wanted to learn the snatch and clean and jerk, so I haven’t pushed them on it,” NottCunningham said. “If they want want to learn it later, then they can give it a try.”

After all, their mom started when she was 23 and look where she wound up.