Lifting her fans' spirits

Natalie Woolfolk

Broadneck grad doesn't medal in weightlifting but has 'good time'

August 13, 2008|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,Sun reporter

BEIJING - Natalie Woolfolk's knees were steady, her arms straight and her smile big as the room. Above her head, she proudly hoisted a lifetime of training and her Olympic dreams - not to mention more than 250 pounds of weights.

But she also lifted high the dreams of her fiance, a fellow weightlifter who learned just one day before the opening ceremony that he wouldn't be competing at these Games.

There'd be no gold medal for Woolfolk, an Arnold native and Broadneck High graduate, but at that moment, it didn't really matter. She nailed the lift that mattered most - the last of the competition and possibly the last she'll ever make on such a stage - and wore a giant smile as she bellowed a celebratory yell across the gym. When the judges gave her the OK, she dropped the bar to the ground and began hopping excitedly on the platform, pointing both index fingers to the sky and smiling at her friends and family in the crowd.

"I went into this competition different than any other competition I've done, where I knew that I was already here, I earned my spot at the Olympics and now it was all for me," said Woolfolk, who finished the competition 12th in her weight class. "I was just going to have a good time."

Up in the stands, her fiance, Casey Burgener, cheered loudly and videotaped every second of Woolfolk's lifts. U.S. Weightlifting has been fighting for several weeks for Burgener, a super heavyweight, to compete in these Games. Confusion over the international qualifying process led the U.S. team to believe it had three slots, instead of two. Burgener traveled to Beijing and learned Thursday that the closest he'd get to weightlifting in the Olympics was cheering on his fiance, whom he plans to marry in the fall.

"I didn't want to come here and me be the only one to lift and not give it everything I had," Woolfolk said. "He was here to support me. I needed to make some lifts. I wanted to be happy. I wanted him to be happy for me."

Said Burgener: "You could tell she was out there having a good time and lifting her heart out."

Lifting 218 pounds in the snatch and 251 in the clean and jerk, Woolfolk totaled 469 pounds, 62 pounds behind gold medalist Hyon Suk Pak of North Korea. Not that Woolfolk was tracking the standings. She was pleased with her totals and noted that her lone failed lift - an attempt of nearly 223 pounds - would've set American records in her weight class for the snatch and the overall total.

Woolfolk, 24, has been lifting for more than a decade, introduced to the sport by her father, Kirk, the strength and conditioning coach at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was among nearly a dozen Americans in the crowd cheering loudly. Even foreign fans seemed to take to Woolfolk, thanks in part to the routine she takes into each and every lift.

As Woolfolk approaches the bar, she lets out a series of hisses, grunts, yelps and heavy breaths. "Come on, girl!" she barked several times, before rocking on her heels and raising the heavy bar.

Though her better numbers come in the snatch, the clean and jerk provided the more emotional lifts of these Games. Woolfolk nailed the first two lifts - 236 pounds and then 245 - and went big for the final one, requesting 251 pounds.

Before the lift, she sat in the backroom with her eyes closed. Michael Jackson played on her iPod. She visualized the lift and focused on the image of the perfect lifting form.

"I was just thinking to myself, 'This is the last lift, girl, you do this. ... Just nail it and be happy with yourself afterwards,' " she said. "That's what I kept telling myself. Don't let yourself be disappointed after you're done with this, no matter happens. If I make two lifts or six lifts, whatever, I just wanted to leave with a smile. And I did exactly that."

On the platform, she hit the lift, her obvious joy feeding the crowd. Fans cheered only louder when Woolfolk dropped the bar and began hopping.

After the competition, Woolfolk and Burgener were reunited in a corridor of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics Gymnasium. They were all smiles as they hugged. "Great job," Burgener told her.

The two plan on moving to San Diego, where they've each accepted strength training jobs in the University of San Diego athletics department. For now, both will take a break before deciding whether they'll continue in the sport.

Burgener said Woolfolk's final lift is one he'll always remember. "I was filled with just sheer joy, knowing it was the last one of the Olympic Games," he said. "We don't know if she'll continue lifting, but the possibility it may be her last lift ever, that'd be a great way to go out."

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