American weightlifter Tara Cunningham is hoping to successfully defend her gold medal at the Athens Olympics. She competes in the 48 kilogram (106 lbs) class that she won four years ago in Sydney, where women's weightlifting first became an Olympic sport. Known then as Tara Nott, her maiden name, she became the first American to win a weightlifting gold medal in 40 years after first place finisher Izabela Dragneva of Bulgaria tested positive for a banned substance.
Tara Cunningham has not always been a weightlifter. She started her athletic career in gymnastics after watching that sport years ago in the Olympics. Soon she was going to camps taught by famed Olympic coach Bela Karolyi. Then she became interested in soccer and from 1990 to 1994 she attended Colorado College on a soccer scholarship.
Cunningham achieved All-American status her freshman year and competed in the national collegiate soccer final four in 1990 and 1991. After graduating, she trained with the national team and won a gold medal with a squad of national team pool players at the 1995 U.S. Olympic Festival. However, she did not make the 1996 Olympic soccer team.
Even though Cunningham did not compete at the Atlanta Summer Games, she found the sport in which she would eventually win Olympic gold.
"When I finished college, I went to work for the Olympics in Atlanta for the sport of soccer. While I was there I still had that competitive drive and was introduced to weightlifting as something I could stay in shape and challenge myself mentally and physically," she explains. "And at the time it wasn't an Olympic sport, so I wasn't going in saying I want to be Olympian, I want to win a gold medal. It was really for my own personal challenge."
Eight months after she took up weightlifting, Tara Cunningham was a national champion. Four-and-half years after she began, she found herself competing when the sport made its debut for women at the Sydney Olympics.
"It's kind of crazy and it's sometimes hard for me to really understand how I made it there. But I think it was my athletic experience from gymnastics, the discipline, the focus you have to have as a gymnast, the flexibility, speed and then also playing soccer at a high level," she says. " I was able to carry that over into weightlifting, so it wasn't like I just walked off the street and started weightlifting and then started winning. I had been an athlete all my life, so it was easy to make that transition into weightlifting."
Since her Olympic gold, Tara Cunningham has won three more Senior National Championships. She also holds four American women's weightlifting records - three in the 48kg weight class and one in the 53kg weight class.
Right before the 2000 Olympics, Cunningham was injured, but she did not let it affect her hopes of competing.
"I was injured at the World Championships in 1999, so I was injured for that whole time clear up to the Olympics. It was my abdominal and I had surgery December 2000 in Los Angeles," she explains. "I had to get a lot of questions answered before I went through on the surgery but I had a great surgeon and was actually back squatting in two weeks, but I squatted in his office two days after surgery. It's a surgery where they try to get you back very quickly, not saying it doesn't hurt, but you're moving. They want you to move because if you don't move the Gore-Tex you can form a lot of scar tissue and kinda get hunched over."
Since the Sydney Olympics when she won her gold medal as Tara Nott, she married Casey Cunningham. They met at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs when Casey was trying to make the U.S. freestyle wrestling team. Her goal now is to win a weightlifting gold medal in Athens as Tara Cunningham.