Tara Cunningham, formerly known as Tara Nott, is an Olympic gold medalist in the 48 kg weight division of the 2000 Sydney Games. She is the only American weightlifter to win a gold medal since Chuck Vinci in 1960. Along with her memorable performance in 2000, Cunningham also competed in the 2004 Athens Games, was part of the Athletes Advisor Committee with the USOC, was an Athlete Ambassador with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and is presently a member of the USOC’s Ethics Community. Currently, Cunningham lives with her husband Casey and their three sons Hayden, Asher and Ryder and daughter Sage in central Pennsylvania. Her husband Casey is the head assistant wrestling coach at Penn State University.
Describe your most memorable experience at the Games?
I think the most memorable Olympic experience for me was in 2000. I finished my last lift in the clean and jerk and was frustrated about not making it. I walked off the stage and had no idea what place I was in. I hadn’t watched any of the other competitors. I said to my coach Lyn Jones, “What place am I?” and he said, "Second." I couldn’t believe it.
Can you describe what you were feeling/ thinking your first time on the medal stand?
I was so excited. At the end of the competition I had won the silver medal and then three days later I was awarded the gold medal, so I didn’t get a gold medal ceremony. As I was standing on the medal stand receiving the silver medal, I was so happy. To win a medal at the Olympic Games was very exciting and also overwhelming.
What was your reaction when you found out you won the gold?
I was in shock. It was hard to take it all in that the Bulgarian had tested positive and now I was going to be awarded the gold medal. I was just getting used to being a silver medalist.
How did you find out that you got the gold?
I was called on the phone by Jim Fox, who was the Executive Director of USA Weightlifting at the time. I think he said, ‘Is this Tara?’ and I said, ‘yes’ and he said, ‘Is this Tara Nott?’ and I said, ‘yes’ and I was thinking ‘what’s going on?’ Then he said, ‘Is this Tara Nott the gold medalist?’ That’s how I found out, if I can remember it correctly. It’s kind of a haze, because it was really hard to believe, but I think that’s what he said to me.
What was your favorite part of the Games outside of competing?
My favorite part of the Games outside of competing was spending time with my family. I enjoyed being able to walk around and see all of the excitement of the Olympics and experience that with my family.
Of Sydney and Athens, which location did you enjoy more?
I really enjoyed Sydney. I felt that the people of Sydney were very excited about the Olympics. Athens was after 9/11 so there was a lot more security and a lot more nervousness about us walking around as Americans and being safe. You didn’t feel that kind of tension in Sydney.
Is there anything you would have done differently in preparing for or competing in the Games?
I think you always look back in terms of the actual competition and think, ‘If I could have made this lift or that lift' but I don’t think in the big picture of competing in the Olympics I would have changed a lot.
What do you think is one thing the usual spectator probably wouldn’t understand about competing in or getting ready for the Olympics?
I don’t think spectators realize all the chaos that happens back stage in the warm-up room. All the competitors are warming up, athletes have two coaches with them, coaches are watching the attempt board - so there is just a lot going on. You really have to stay focused on yourself and not get distracted while warming up in preparation to take the competition stage.
Do you have any thoughts about any of our current Olympians heading to London?
I followed the Olympic Trials and am excited to see Holley Mangold, Sarah Robles and Kendrick Farris compete. It will be fun to cheer them on and to see them experience the Olympics.
What’s it like to be able to experience watching the games as a former Olympian, considering that you have competed in the Games yourself?
I have loved watching the Olympics since I was a little kid. It’s funny because when I watch, I kind of forget that I competed in them. I start crying at the stories of the athletes when I am watching. I enjoy watching all of the Olympic sports.
You mentioned this a little earlier, but have you been active within the weightlifting community at any level recently?
Since I have four young kids it has been very hard for me to be involved in the weightlifting community. When I was competing, I was on the USAW Board of Directors and served on the Athletes Advisor Committee for the USOC and was an Athlete Ambassador for USADA. Currently I am on the USOC Ethics Committee, but haven’t been able to get involved as much with USA Weightlifting because of my kids and my husbands career as a collegiate wrestling coach. When I get a chance, I help lifters with technique – clean and jerk and snatch, here at Penn State University.
Where do you see the direction of USA Weightlifting going?
It’s hard to say, because I haven’t been that involved because of my family. It’s fun to see CrossFit include the Olympic lifts in their competitions and that USA Weightlifting is involved with them in teaching proper technique. I think the more exposure the Olympic lifts get the more the sport can grow.
Going back to your Olympic experiences, what was your initial reaction towards going into another country with all of the attention that goes with the Games?
I think I had a good grasp of what the Olympics would be like because I worked for the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. By working for the games I really understood the magnitude of the Olympics before I competed. Also, traveling to world championships in other countries prepared me for competing and staying in different countries.
How has your life been changed since your gold medal?
I think that a lot of people, when they find out that I won an Olympic gold medal, are shocked and even more shocked that I was a weightlifter because of my size. It’s fun to be able to explain to them weightlifting and that there are weight categories and all of those things that people don’t realize about weightlifting. I have had four kids since I retired in 2004 so now I’m just a regular mom who is raising four kids that's had two really good experiences at the Olympics.
Will we see any of your kids in any of the future Olympic Games?
My husband was a collegiate wrestler and is now a Division I wrestling coach and I was a Division I collegiate soccer player and then a weightlifter. It will be fun to see what sport they enjoy or if they even like sports.