By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Natalie Woolfolk has spent more than four years living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and sometimes she hates the place. A tiny dorm room stifles her. Cafeteria food makes her sick. Three-a-day weightlifting sessions exhaust her. On the worst days, Woolfolk jokes that she'd like to run away -- until she remembers her old training facility.
Woolfolk's competitive weightlifting career started in an Annapolis garage -- make that a sloped, cold, cramped garage filled with outdated equipment. She would come home from a day of classes at Broadneck High School, pile on a few layers of winter clothes and shiver through a 90-minute workout. Sometimes, if Woolfolk accidentally dropped a weight, it would roll out of the garage, down the driveway and into the street.
"I had to chase after some big weights, and that got kind of old," Woolfolk said. "I can't ever really complain about any place after doing that. Looking back, it seems a little crazy. It's like it happened a lifetime ago."
It's only been five years, actually, but Woolfolk, 22, has put great distance between herself and such amateurism. Since she left Annapolis, Woolfolk has broken two American records and emerged as the top-ranked lifter in the 63-kilogram (139 pounds) weight class. She's a favorite to place well at the 2006 World Weightlifting Championships, which start today in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and factor into qualifying for the 2008 Olympics.
Coaches and teammates sometimes joke that Woolfolk was genetically fated for weightlifting excellence, since her mother trained bodybuilders and her father works as director of strength and conditioning for athletics at the Naval Academy. But Woolfolk only started to realize her potential in the last four months, thanks to a record-breaking training cycle.
During the past summer, about 10 elite women weightlifters trained three times each day in Colorado Springs, working about five hours daily. The schedule ranked as excessive, even by Olympic standards, and coaches worried that Woolfolk -- one of the smallest, least-muscular lifters -- might buckle to fatigue or injury. Instead, she matured into the second most-accomplished American lifter, regardless of weight class.
Woolfolk set about 40 personal bests during the summer, thanks partly to increased muscle mass in her quadriceps. She established American records for her weight class in both Olympic lifts: the snatch (220 pounds) and the clean-and-jerk (260 pounds). She has already bettered both of those totals in practice, and she hopes to improve each record by about 10 pounds in competition this week.
"She might have had the best training cycle of any athlete I've ever coached," said Robert Morris, head coach of the women's Olympic weightlifting team. "Every week she's doing something she's never done before, something we never even knew she could do. When I first started coaching her, improvement was a little slow. But she's caught up, and she's caught up fast. You hope an athlete can have one or two personal bests in a training cycle, and she was getting one or two every day."
At the Olympic Training Center, Woolfolk has engineered every detail of her life toward making weightlifting advancements. She quit a job at Home Depot, and she takes only a couple of college classes each semester toward her business degree. Her boyfriend, Casey Burgener, is the top-ranked weightlifter in the United States. "It's like a normal relationship, just with a lot of weightlifting talk," Burgener said. "We can always understand what the other person is going through."
Said Woolfolk: "Sometimes I get sick of being at the [Olympic] Training Center and thinking about lifting all the time. You get tired of focusing so much on one thing. But the closer it gets to the Olympics, the more I know that this is what I need to be doing. I know I can make a name for myself in this sport."
It's a possibility that would have terrified Woolfolk in high school, when she refused to tell classmates that she lifted weights. Woolfolk always imagined herself competing in a more elegant sport, and she became a level-10 gymnast before a growth spurt hindered her progress in junior high. She briefly tried running track and playing soccer, and Woolfolk only agreed to lift weights with her father, she said, if it was "just to stay in shape."
Success hooked her. Woolfolk lifted weights easily the first time she went to the gym with her father, Kirk, in 1998. Gymnastics had given her great balance, flexibility and body awareness, and Woolfolk handled the weightlifting bar naturally. She compensated for unimposing muscles with flawless technique, and she rarely missed a workout. Woolfolk lifted with her father and his college athletes at the Naval Academy for two years. Then, when the Academy curtailed civilian access after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Woolfolk transitioned to her garage.
Woolfolk's one hang-up about weightlifting -- "that she would get really hulky and look like a football player," said her mother, Amy Frank -- dissipated quickly. Even now, Woolfolk's 5-foot, 4-inch figure remains counterintuitive. When she wears jeans that cover her massive quadriceps, she looks practically petite. Athletes at the Naval Academy joke that Kirk is the only Division I strength coach who wilts in weightlifting competitions against his skinny, 135-pound daughter.
"She might not look muscle-bound, but it's deceptive," Kirk said. "She has amazing leg strength, and she has almost perfect technique. I won't lift against her anymore, because it's a little embarrassing. She makes it look easy."
Woolfolk visited the Olympic Training Center for the first time in the summer before her senior year of high school, and Olympic coaches remembered the undeveloped 17-year-old when a full-time residency spot opened later that year. Woolfolk left Broadneck after the first semester of her senior year and moved to Colorado.
"She was kind of a project for us, but we all recognized her potential," Morris said. "It's a guessing game when you pick athletes to come out and train here. We thought if we got her in the right facility and gave her some time, she could be a star in 2008. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. We definitely got this one right."