Strong! Documentarian Julie Wyman Talks To M&S

As Cheryl Haworth prepares for Beijing 2008, she struggles with injury, confidence, and her place in a world where larger women are not readily accepted.

Editor's Note: Strong with be featured on Independent Lens (PBS) on July 26, 2012. Please check local listings for more details.

Cheryl Haworth defies categories. A visual artist with a personality that has earned the nickname “Fun,” she is also America’s top Olympic weightlifter, ranked well above all men and women on Team USA. But at a weight of 300 pounds, she doesn’t easily fit into standard chairs, clothing sizes, or preconceptions.

The film explores the contradiction of a body that is at once celebrated within the confines of her sport and shunned by mainstream culture. Through Haworth’s journey, we learn not only about the sport of lifting weight, but also the state of being weighty: the material, psychological, and social consequences and possibilities of a having a body that doesn’t fit.

Muscle & Strength: Give us a little background. Tell us about STRONG!, what it is, and how you became involved with this project.

Julie Wyman: Sure.  Strong is a documentary film about Cheryl Haworth and her struggle to kind of hold onto her champion status as the strongest woman in the Western Hemisphere.  Cheryl is a 3 time Olympian.  When I started filming her she was an Olympic medalist, and just a kind of an incredible talent in the World of Olympic weight lifting, and had also received a lot of attention when she medalled at Sydney, in 2000.  Not just for medalling but also for being a super heavy weight girl who felt good about her body.

A 300 lb. girl who not only felt good about her body but could use it in this incredible way to perform at a really elite athletic level.  So that interested me a lot because I’m interested in offering inspiration to people to not just accept, but also to use and to enjoy the bodies that they are in, and to find things that they are good at and to enjoy being physically active at any size.

Strong director Julie Wyman

Muscle & Strength: Now you are not a lifter yourself.  What are your interests in physical fitness beyond...

Julie Wyman: You mean besides holding the camera? (laughs)

Muscle & Strength: Beyond holding the camera, I guess you could say.

Julie Wyman: Yes, I’ve always been a really active person.  I don’t do Olympic lifting.  As I was making this film I tried to do a little training.  I have a history of shoulder injury that I have to be careful about.  But you know,  I’ve always been pretty physically active.  I'm a swimmer.  I also love dancing, hiking, bicycling. And I guess you know, as a younger person, as a kid, I always felt like I didn’t quite have the right body -- my proportions are a little unusual, I don’t have your classic athletic body to say the least, and yet I was very physically active in wanting to do sports or do gymnastics, which I did for a while.

Cheryl HaworthThe quandary is that a lot of people who don’t fit the mold assume that they can’t engage in a sport that is physically challenging, and so never try.  There are a lot of people out there who actually might be really good at something, or even if they’re not going to medal or make it to the Olympics, might have a really exciting time exploring an athletic or physical activity, and I want them - us! - to feel encouraged to go against type, to try what appeals to them.

Anyway, I didn’t have experience as a lifter, but I had done some weight training, some free weights training, and was always kind of intrigued with the sport, so I did want to know more about it.  I knew very little about this sport - you know I didn’t know the difference between powerlifting and Olympic lifting when I started making the film, but I had always found it interesting to see women going into and succeeding in sports that were traditionally considered male.

I’ve always been interested in sports that allow women to tap into their own kind of tough, aggressive energy and to be athletic in that way, not to just be a pretty body on display.  And by the way, I don’t think any gymnast is a pretty body on display - gymnasts are incredible athletes! - but there is something about seeing a woman excel in  traditionally “masculine” sports like weightlifting, and wrestling and boxing, that can transform and open up the way we think about both athletes and women.

That’s what drew me to want to learn about weight lifting and want to bring sort of I guess, you know, expand the reach of the image of an athlete like Cheryl.

Muscle & Strength: People can assume that because Cheryl Haworth doesn't have that perfect "athlete body" that she doesn't work as hard, doesn't worry about nutrition, and is perhaps a genetic freak that goes down to the gym, tosses weights around for 40 minutes, and done.

Can you tell us a little bit about how hard Cheryl Haworth works on a daily basis?  Also, she did mention in the documentary that she eats a lot more strict than most people imagine.  Can you comment on that from what you witnessed during your time with Cheryl?

Julie Wyman: It was really interesting to me to see and get to know Cheryl’s diet, and see the way that she eats, and also to see what it is like for other weight lifters.  I mean, Cheryl was really careful about not just what she ate, she is always eating kind of good quality meats without hormones, and lots of fresh produce, but also looking at things like food combining.

Cheryl Haworth

While she was training, she wouldn’t eat any carbs with meat.  And yes, she never eats desserts, almost never.  She was really conscious of trying to, in a certain way, build her body, even though it’s a different body than say a 100 lb. weight lifter is going to have.  All weight lifters want to have as much muscle mass on their body as they can. Not just mass, but to build muscle that knows what it’s doing, right?  That’s the way that I think of it.

But for the women and men at lighter weight classes, I guess they have sort of a ceiling to their weight, so they want to get as close to it as they can, but there is a top, they try to control it.  Whereas at the super heavyweight level…

The thing that was interesting to me was to see how even though Cheryl’s task was often to eat a lot, it was to eat a lot of specific kinds of food.  Like her metabolism is really fast, and so to build muscle, she needed to be eating I think at least 2,100 calories a day, which is her resting metabolism - that’s the energy her body burns if she were to lie down and just swallow and blink her eyes for 24 hours.

Cheryl HaworthAnd so to build muscle, she needed to have 3,500 calories, which is a different regime than maybe someone who is trying to stay under 115 lbs.  I think the other thing too is that one of the stories that the film tells is that what kind of worked really well for her athletically was to train really hard but also to make sure she had enough recuperation time for her body to rebuild.

We often feel that we should always be working and training harder, but in fact, to get to her maximum performance, Cheryl needed to make sure not only was she getting in the gym and tearing up those muscles, but allowing her body time to rebuild them.  So, I guess her story also tells us that overtraining isn’t useful either.

Muscle & Strength: I just want to comment and say that Strong had me in emotional fits at times.  I was cheering, I was hurting when Cheryl Haworth was hurting… Her personality really stands out in the documentary.  Is there anything about Cheryl that surprised you during filming?

Julie Wyman: I think Cheryl developed and changed during the time that I was filming her.  And what we end up with is kind of a certain way coming-of-age story.  A person kind of coming into her own and grappling with who she is in the sport and away from the sport.

What was surprising to me was when I started the film, I thought I had a story about someone who was completely confident, has an unshakable confidence in herself, even at 300 lbs., as a young woman in the world.  What ends up happening in the film is that she has to acknowledge that even having had that success, it is still hard to fit in, and find clothes, and find a place to fit, feel like you belong, as a woman.

So that social stigma that we all face, in women in particular, are still there, even for champions.  I guess that was something that surprised me, was the way that her story ended up being about the fact that Cheryl has vulnerabilities.

In a sense, that’s why I named the movie “STRONG!”  This is a movie about someone who is so incredibly, physically strong, but her emotional strength comes through grappling with challenges terms of coming through injury, but also kind of acknowledging that she doesn’t feel comfortable with the place that her body fits in the world.

Julie Wyman

Muscle & Strength: One of the aspects of the documentary that really struck me was the love/hate relationship she had with what she was doing.  She had to be big to be strong, but you know, she at times didn’t want to be big.  For those that haven’t seen the film, can you talk about this a little bit and what you experienced, and how it plays out in the documentary?

Julie Wyman: Yes, I mean I think Cheryl faces this Catch-22 where she has been able to use her size as a strength in her sport.  Weightlifter Rachel Hearn, one of Cheryl’s teammates, in the film says “I’m not big because of my sport, my size is a tool to be used in my sport.”  In other words, succeeding in the sport was not just about medalling for Cheryl, it was also about finding a place to fit in and be validated as a big person, as a big woman.

So she is validated through her success in weightlifting, but the catch is that when she can’t do her sport anymore, and when she is injured, she faces the same difficulty that most of us do: that it’s not easy to be big or to be different physically than the standard very narrow norm, and she yearns to fit in, to be “normal” in a sense.  She yearns to to be in a different body or leave her sport, so that she can fit in, or feel like she can be accepted and acknowledged outside of just being a weightlifter.

Does that make sense?

Cheryl HaworthMuscle & Strength: Absolutely.

Julie Wyman: Just a follow up on that - which is that Cheryl’s size gave her this advantage.  But it’s certainly not the reason that she was successful.  She is just such an incredible athlete: that’s why she was successful in this sport.

Not all 300 lb. women can be Cheryl…at all.  You know, can go up to an Olympic platform and win a medal.  But I guess the dilemma dramatically is that she’s trapped by the thing that she is good at.  You know?  The thing she is good at, both gives her this validation, but it also keeps her from just having a more normal life, I guess.

Muscle & Strength: It’s an interesting dynamic.  I mean anybody that starts out on any endeavor in life, once they reach a certain point where they start to become very good at it, it’s almost like a trap in certain ways.  They can’t always get out because, if they fall in love with it, and become great at it, expectations are attached...

Julie Wyman: Yeah.  I think that not just athletes, but anyone who has a level of success, can relate to that story.  You get there and then you know, you become defined by that success, and it’s so hard when you lose that ability…you know, or it’s shaken.

Muscle & Strength: You know, I look at it in the sense of sacrifice.  I mean, anyone that has to achieve what Cheryl does, on a high level, has to make sacrifices.  You know, her sacrifice, her question was, “is it worth it to remain heavy?”

Julie Wyman: Yes.  But the idea that it’s a choice to remain heavy is a tricky one.  You know, not everyone has a size 6 person living within them, you know?  I don’t know that Cheryl could weigh 130 lbs; I don’t think that her frame would ever be that size.

It’s relative - of course.  She could, and she perhaps will weigh less than 300 lbs. at some point, but, she - and all of us -  can only change weight within a specific parameters.  And then beyond that there’s the task of accepting our size or finding some way of living in a body that is relatively big.

Julie Wyman and Cheryl Haworth

Muscle & Strength: I’m sure it’s just like a specter over her head.  She would like to not have to worry about it some days.

Julie Wyman: Obviously.  She would like to not have her size and her sport be the thing that defines her.

Muscle & Strength: Julie, for those who are unfamiliar with the documentary Strong and have no idea what it is about beyond what we have talked about, can you tell them what will they get out of it, and can you give us some reasons why they should watch it?

Julie Wyman: Well, I hope that the film gives inspiration to people.  I think Cheryl Haworth, as an athlete, and just as a person who lives with the challenges that an athlete faces, is just such an incredible model.  Not just because she is such an amazing lifter, but also because of the way that she deals with injury, with failure, with the unknown of her future.

Julie WymanI think her story provides kind of an inspiration and a model, and also just represents something that we don’t see a lot.  I think a lot of the stories we see about athletes are shorter, made up a few snappy sound bites, and they don’t get at the depth sort of in terms of what most real athletes actually face day in and day out.

So, I guess I hope people will get inspiration and also the satisfaction of seeing the sort of nitty gritty, the warts-and-all view, the behind the scenes of what it’s like to be an athlete who is coming up against her limits and challenging those.

Muscle & Strength: That’s what I took away from it.  And I appreciate the work that you put into this because, as an athlete, you know, it’s one of the best looks at strength training that I have ever seen.  I know the strength training community appreciates what you’ve done.

Julie Wyman: Oh, thank you - that means so much to hear you say that!  We screened at another school and we had some strength coaches and their athletes in the audience - athletes from like field hockey and all kinds of sports, not just weight lifting.  And think that they really got it, they really understood and liked that this athlete’s story was being represented.

I mean, you guys all are dealing with injuries all of the time.  And whenever I have been really active in something, so have I.  You know, and it’s terrible when you hurt yourself doing the thing you love to do, you can’t do it anymore.  It’s not just frustrating, it raises all these other questions.  I hope that’s like useful for people to see that, and to feel like, okay, here is something that talks reflects that struggle that they’ve experienced.

Muscle & Strength: Two more quick questions.  Where and when?  Where can people see the documentary Strong, and will it be coming out on DVD.

Julie Wyman: Right.  First of all, it’s at a couple festivals and around the country in the next couple of months: at Silverdocs, an excellent documentary festival in the Washington DC area in June.  And then we will have a series of theatrical screenings in July in a few cities: Savannah, Atlanta, San Diego, LA, and New York!  And it it will be Independent Lens on National PBS on July 26, 2012.

Some areas will air it probably a little after that, so basically either right before or at the very beginning of the Olympics.  And then, yes, it will be out on DVD.  We are preparing to launch that.  The website which should launch really soon. Strongthefilm.com.

For now, people can follow us on Facebook and DVD sales will be through the website and we will also have a late one that is distributed digitally, eventually, too, like through iTunes, etc.

Julie Wyman and Cheryl Haworth

Muscle & Strength: How else can people connect with Strong!

Julie Wyman: We have a Facebook page that’s “Strong!” and we have Twitter feed too.

Muscle & Strength: Okay.  And one last question about you, Julie Wyman.  What’s up next for you?

Julie Wyman: Well, I am starting a couple of new projects. And they are both related, indirectly, to Strong.  One is looking at the world of plus size fashion, so looking at some ladies, who really have a different kind of physical confidence and beauty.

And then, also, I am looking at doing a piece that relates to the topic of “childhood obesity” and I put that in quotes because I am interested in kind of changing and trying to help that discussion be more about childhood nutrition and helping and inspiring kids to be active, whatever their size, not just trying to get them to lose weight.  So those are two topics that I am just starting to work on.