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Love, barbell style

By The Associated Press
Posted Friday, May 30, 2008

ATLANTA(AP) - Casey Burgener and Natalie Woolfolk have a long to-do list before they head off to the Beijing Olympics.

They'll be spending countless hours in the gym, of course. They'll be keeping up with every calorie they eat, and making sure they get the proper amount of rest when they're not pumping iron.

Oh yeah, there's one other little matter that needs tending to, as well.

Planning their wedding.

Call it love, barbell style.

Casey Burgener proposed to Natalie Woolfolk on an elephant safari after the 2007 World Championships in Thailand.
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Casey Burgener proposed to Natalie Woolfolk on an elephant safari after the 2007 World Championships in Thailand.

In August, Burgener and Woolfolk will be part of the U.S. weightlifting team in China, hoisting huge amounts of weight above their heads in hopes of claiming a medal. Three months later, they'll walk down the aisle - actually, through the backyard of Burgener's California home - to become husband and wife.

They can't imagine it any other way.

"If I'm feeling a certain way, a lot of girlfriends might not understand," Burgener said. "But she understands exactly what I'm going through. She knows what I need, what I don't need."

Likewise for his fiancee.

"I've got somebody that knows what it's like to be an elite-level athlete," Woolfolk said. "He's know what it's like with all the ups and downs. You have somebody there to support you, no matter what. Whenever I've not had a good meet, he knows that he probably shouldn't be coming around saying, 'Oh, I did so and so,' rubbing it in my face. That's something other people might do. But he knows how to behave afterward."

Turns out, they're not the only ones feeling a bit amorous down at the gym.

Chad Vaughn, another of the three men who qualified for the U.S. team, is already married to a fellow weightlifter. Appropriately enough, he proposed to wife Jodi during a training session, literally pulling the ring from the wrap on his wrist.

"It was a little cheesy, but I thought it made sense," Vaughn said. "Right after I did one of my warmup sets, she was over there not paying attention. So I just dropped down on a knee right on the training stand."

Jodi Vaughn suspected a proposal was coming, but her husband sure caught her off guard. He had an engagement ring made up that also commemorated her 2005 national championship.

"Yes," she said, breaking into a big grin, "weightlifting is our life."

Burgener was even more scheming. He asked Woolfolk to marry him while the two were riding an elephant in Thailand after last year's world championships.

"I knew we were going to end up together, but when I was up on that elephant, all I was thinking about was getting off safely," Woolfolk said.

Imagine her surprise when the driver hopped off the elephant's neck, leaving Burgener and Woolfolk sitting all alone on top of the huge animal.

"I was like, 'What's going on here? You've got to be kidding me,"' Woolfolk recalled. "I was completely distracted by the guy jumping off. We were going through the jungle with a big waterfall coming down, and Casey is over there telling me he loves me and stuff. I was like, 'Hold on. I need a second to figure out what's going on.' And he's like, 'No, Natalie, I really love you.' Then he popped out the ring, and I started crying."

Burgener's mom and a friend were trailing the couple on a separate elephant.

"I hear this 'Woo! Woo! Woo!" in the background," Woolfolk said. "I'm like, 'Your mom knows?' I guess everybody knew but me. Everybody was waiting back home, ready to find out. But they all knew I would say yes."

Burgener knew he was making the right move, but he still went to Chad Vaughn for a little moral support. After all, his fellow lifter already knew a thing or two about juggling marriage and kilos.

"He said marriage was a blessing," Burgener said. "It's always good to get a little inspiration from other married couples."

Vaughn's wife predicts this won't be the last weightlifting hookup, either.

"A lot of couples have sparked from weightlifting," she said. "They're not married yet, but they're going to be."

What brings them together?

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Both couples point to the importance of having someone to rely on during the long hours of training, of having someone who can cope with each other's inevitable ups and downs. That's especially true in a niche sport such as weightlifting, which draws scant attention in the U.S. outside an Olympic year.

Since hardly anyone else is paying attention to the enormous sacrifice these athletes must make to reach their goal, they tend to rally around each other. Years ago, the gym was filled mostly with bulked-up guys; these days, there could be just as many women straining to lift the bar, their numbers going up dramatically after female weightlifting was added to the Olympic program in 2000.

Nature took over from there.

"Casey's mom asked him why he wanted to marry me," Woolfolk said. "I was sitting there when he says, 'There's three reasons: She's pretty, she's athletic and she doesn't drive me crazy.' I was like, 'Gee, that's the most unromantic thing I've ever heard.' Then he broke it down. He says, 'I can't spend this much time with anybody and not be driven crazy.' I guess I'm the same way. I spend a lot of time with him and he doesn't drive me crazy. It's not romantic to say, but it's true."

The Vaughns found a similar kinship. They first met in 1998, and their relationship grew stronger as they kept running into each other at local and regional meets. Their friendship gradually grew into something more, and they were married in 2005.

While there are obvious advantages to being a weightlifting couple, it's easy to get on each other's nerves when they're essentially going to the same job each day.

"We both know what we need and what we expect from each other," Jodi Vaughn said. "Sometimes, it can be a little agitating."

While Chad Vaughn will be making his second trip to the Olympics, his wife came up short this year. She struggled to overcome an elbow injury, and a full-time job also cuts into her training time. But her husband is convinced she has the potential to qualify if she decides to stick with it another four years.

He cherishes the thought of walking into the opening ceremony with his wife at his side.

"That would mean everything," Chad Vaughn said. "That's what we both have worked for every day, all this time."

Woolfolk and Burgener will soon be able to tell the married couple what it feels like. At the Olympic trials in Atlanta this month, she locked her place on the women's side, then watched nervously as her husband rallied to capture the final men's spot.

"It's so much harder to sit in the stands than to actually do it," Woolfolk said. "When it's on your shoulders, you actually take it all in, take in all the pressure and just go with it. But when it's on somebody else, you don't know what's going on in the back, you don't know how the warmups are going. You're just sitting there. I was about to throw up. I was sweating. I was freaking out. It was ridiculous."

Even though his fiancee told him not to pay any attention to what she was doing in the women's competition, Burgener knew that Woolfolk had made it before he took the stage.

That put even more pressure on him to qualify, too.

"We are traveling after the Olympics. We are getting married after the Olympics," Woolfolk said. "OK, let's say I'm training for the Olympics, what's he doing in the meantime? It would have been completely bittersweet if I had made it and he didn't. I would have been so happy to be on the team, but I would have been heartbroken as well. I know how hard he's worked. He's put in just as much work as I have, just as much effort as I have. He wanted it just as much."

When Burgener made the lift that clinched his trip to Beijing, he collapsed on the stage in joy - and relief.

His fiancee went wild in the stands, knowing just what he was going through.

"It's something you want so bad," Woolfolk said. "But you want it for the other person even more."

Having locked up their spots on the team, the happy couple headed off to plan their wedding. It will be a small affair the day before Thanksgiving, in the backyard of Burgener's home before immediate family only. Three days later, they'll throw a big shindig for the rest of their family and friends.

Then, they'll probably head straight to the gym.

Remember, this is love with a barbell attached.

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Quote of Note

Any athlete at this level and the elite level knows really when they should turn the light switch on and off. It's been on all summer.

Apolo Ohno, Short track
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