For a long time Tara Nott Cunningham’s gold medal was in a junk drawer.
Cunningham, the first United States weightlifter to win Olympic gold since Chuck Vinci in 1960 —and the first US female weightlifter ever to win Olympic gold, period— didn’t want that success to go to her head. She wanted to remind herself all those nights in the gym, and all the sacrifices she made, wasn’t about just getting a medal.
“If you hang it up and sit there and look at it, focus on it, it could be something that defines you,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t want it to define me, so I chose to put it with the batteries in the kitchen. You can get drawn back into that thinking, ‘I’m an Olympic Champion’ and I don’t think it’s healthy.”
The mental game for Cunningham, who competed with her maiden name of Nott, has always been something she’s placed a lot of emphasis on. And rightfully so. The only athlete to have trained for three different sports at the U.S. Olympic training center -gymnastics, soccer, and weightlifting- the 105-lb. powerhouse admits she would often get in her own head.
“I had some mental barriers. I would think things like, ‘Am I going to make this or really hurt myself?,’” Cunningham said.
“You have to learn to really clear your mind of those thoughts. If you go in scared of the weight you are not going to make it. That was something I had to really focus on was mental preparation of a competition and a certain weight and really visualize myself doing it over rand over in my head, making it.
I think a lot of times that’s what we don’t work as hard at, the mental aspect of it. Physically we can be in good shape and mentally we can fall apart. And that’s something you need to put time and energy into it. ‘How do I calm myself down? I worked a lot on that before the 2000 Olympics.”
Cunningham, who won the gold at Sydney in the 48 kg., had a tape she would listen to that she would take to competition. She would watch a lot of video and mentally take herself through every lift.
“It was about changing that mindset and self-talk,” she said. “It’s amazing how your body follows the thoughts in your head. If you have that doubt you are probably not going to make it.”
That self-talk wasn’t just for big lifts. Cunningham had a plan for every day she put a barbell in her hand.
‘What challenged me throughout my career was the small goals I set for myself every day in the gym,” she said.
“It was, ‘OK what can I power snatch or power jerk today? What can I triple?What can I do without misses? Can I get through a practice with no misses? That’s what I loved about weightlifting: every day was a new challenge. And it wasn’t a challenge of how much weight can I lift, it was can I not step forward in my snatch because I would always rush it. That’s what I enjoyed about going into the gym.”
In Cunningham’s first competition she missed every opening snatch, running off the platform. She wanted to be aggressive, but hadn’t learned to be patience first.
Her goal the following year was to make every snatch opener. After she accomplished that, her focus was to go four for six. Then six for six.
“I think there’s always something you can challenge yourself with, without just increasing weight,” she said. “And I see people jump in and say, ‘I’m strong, I can throw this up in the air and bypass all the learning in the beginning’. But what I would tell you is really take that time and don’t be discouraged if your weights aren’t going up quickly.
Just really focus on technique. People don’t realize how much that’s done even at the Olympic level. The smallest lean forward in the dip [in the jerk], for example, can throw everything off.”
Cunningham who took up lifting and 4 1/2 years later was on the Olympic podium, actually placed second in 2000 with her 82.5 kg snatch and 102.5 clean-and-jerk. She won the silver medal and three days later, the gold medal winner Bulgaria’s Izabela Dragneva was stripped for using performance-enhancing drugs.
“Again, it goes back to the mental game,” she said. “Two people bombed out in my weight class and one tested positive. You never know what can happen.
“What you can control is accomplishing and setting goals. And being a strong female. I think confidence-wise, getting out on a platform and competing in front of people, all eyes on you, I think it’s good, no matter what level you’re at, just really putting that effort in. The confidence I gained from weight lifting, overcoming the fears of the weight, it’s made me a stronger person.”
As for Cunningham’s fear of being consumed by her medal, those days are also long gone. The medal is in a safe, though most of the time she’ll find it in a filing cabinet or strewn somewhere else as one of her five kids often like to take it out.
It’s not a signal of what she can lift so much as it is a reminder of what Cunningham has overcome, as a person and an athlete, to achieve greatness.