Weighing in on Beijing

U.S.-record holder from Arnold pumped up for Olympics

Beijing 2008

Four Weeks To Go

July 13, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

Lift. Grunt. Clang.

Lift. Grunt. Clang.

So it goes, day after day, week after week in the world of Natalie Woolfolk, Olympic weightlifter.

Her life revolves around the sight of heaving muscles and the sound of heavy metal. Beijing beckons next month, and Woolfolk, a 24-year-old Marylander and U.S.-record holder, is heeding the call.

Her sights are set on the Games. Woolfolk is getting married this fall, but the only China pattern in her thoughts has five interlocking circles.

"She's totally focused," said her sister Haley DiBlasi, of Eldersburg. "I'll call Nat to hear some wedding talk, and she'll say, 'Yeah, we're taking care of that.' Then she starts in on the Olympics."

For nearly six years Woolfolk has worked toward this, living and learning at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Like a college freshman, she resides in a dorm, eats dining-hall fare - and spends her time pumping more iron than the Maryland football team.

"When people ask me what I do, I say I lift heavy things over my head all day," said Woolfolk, a graduate of Broadneck in Anne Arundel County. "It sounds silly, but really, what do [the Orioles] do? They throw a ball around all day."

The payoff: Woolfolk earned a berth on the U.S. team in May. She's a national weight-class champion in the snatch, an event that involves hoisting a barbell over one's head from the floor in a single movement.

Woolfolk weighs 135 pounds. Her record in the snatch is 220.

"It's technique more than brute strength," she said. "Done correctly, you don't even feel it. You're used to having weights evenly distributed on a bar. But ask me to lift a bag of potatoes when I'm not focused, and it feels heavy."

Woolfolk took to the gym in eighth grade, when her father, Kirk Woolfolk - the strength and conditioning coach at the Naval Academy - convinced her to try the sport.

Woolfolk nearly walked away.

"I was terrified," she said.

It wasn't the thought of back-breaking lifts that scared her. It was the fear of the girl from Arnold becoming a Schwarzenegger.

"I didn't want to become 'Helga,' this huge woman who looks like a man and has a beard," she said.

On the other hand, the mystique of weightlifting caught Woolfolk's fancy.

"I always wanted to be stronger than boys," she said. "For the most part, I was a sweet little girly girl. But get me fired up and I could be spunky."

Even at 7, when her sport was gymnastics, she liked showing how tough a girl could be.

"My 9-year-old brother, Nolan, would invite his friends over and dare them to hit me in the stomach," she said. "I could flex my abs, so it didn't hurt. Their knuckles kind of bounced off."

By high school, Woolfolk sought a gentler persona. At Broadneck, she wore stylish outfits, makeup and jewelry. Weekends, however, she donned a singlet, made for the gym and worked her muscles to the bone.

"Nat is so soft-spoken and sweet," said Katie O'Leary, a close friend since high school. "The first time I saw her compete, I was surprised that those grunts came out of such a little girl."

Even those close to Woolfolk were startled by her musculature as a teen.

"I remember sitting with my boyfriend on a rock by the pier at the Naval Academy," she said. "My feet dangled over the rock. He put his hand on my leg. I swung my leg up and my quad flexed."

Her boyfriend gasped.

"Oh God!" he said.

"What?"

"Your muscles are really big."

"Oh," Woolfolk replied, not knowing what to say. "Sorry ... "

Though that relationship didn't last, Woolfolk found a soulmate. Casey Burgener is a 272-pound weightlifter bound for Beijing. They will wed in November.

"She's the greatest girl on planet Earth," said Burgener, 25, a physics major from California.

"Casey isn't scared of my muscles, he loves my body and he makes me feel very feminine," Woolfolk said. "When we go out together and people learn who he is, they congratulate him for having made the Olympic team. They don't know that I lift weights, and they don't ask.

"I take that as a compliment."

Burgener proposed to Woolfolk in September in Thailand after the world championships there. As the pair toured the countryside, Burgener took out the ring and popped the question - though it's hard to get down on one knee while riding an elephant.

Both like the idea of competing together in China.

"To have someone you love support you through the Games will help," Burgener said.

Weightlifters appreciate any boost they can get, Woolfolk said.

"In international competition, the girls do look like men," she said. "I kid you not, they are very scary. It's hard to not let it get to you."

Viewers catch only part of the competitive drama, she said.

"On TV, all you see is the lifter as she comes onstage," she said. "But the back room, where everyone warms up, is an emotional and frantic place. You have to zone everything out.

"You're surrounded by people who are screaming and crying. One lifter is bawling because she just bombed out. Someone else is cheering real loud because she just set a record.

"Meanwhile, another team's coach keeps walking back and forth in front of you, staring and trying to make you nervous.

"It's pretty much like a Miss America pageant, except that the women are stronger."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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