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Woolfolk Looks to Lift Her Way to US Olympic Gold

American Natalie Woolfolk is a two-time USA Weightlifting Athlete of the Year, and has set 10 American records since joining the team in 2005. She is one of the USA's best hopes for a weightlifting medal and will compete in the 63-kilogram class in Beijing. As VOA's David Byrd reports, Woolfolk did not start out to be a lifter, but her family's encouragement and her natural ability paved the way.

Strength runs in Natalie Woolfolk's family - her father Kirk is the strength and conditioning coach at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Her mother was a fitness instructor and competitor. Natalie started out as a gymnast, but a growth spurt in the sixth grade turned her interests to soccer and athletics. Her father Kirk first got her interested in weightlifting to keep her strength up.

Natalie told VOA Sports that her father showed her a picture of her current teammate Melanie Roach, and that encouraged her to begin working with weights.

"I was already kind of built like a weightlifter, which is I was short, squat, and I was powerful from gymnastics," she said. "So he showed me a picture of a woman named Melanie Roach, and she's a very pretty woman and she was lifting a lot of weight at the time. So she was the one who actually got me started because she was a very pretty lady and she was lifting lots of weight."

Kirk Woolfolk's job meant that Natalie got to use the U.S. Naval Academy's state-of-the-art facility. However, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the facility was closed to civilians. That's when Natalie began training in a makeshift gym in her garage. Her father says it was not always easy having a weight room in their home.

"I took some, I had some weights at home and she started lifting in the garage," he said. "And it was not the ideal situation. We live kind of on a hill and the garage slants outwards. She would drop weights and they would start to roll out the door, and it was cold. So it was not the best - ideal - place to work out, but at least she could train."

That training paid off. By the time she was 17, Natalie Woolfolk had received an offer to live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She graduated from high school in 2002 and moved to the Training Center, where she has been devoting her time to reaching the Beijing Games. Woolfolk was the U.S. national champion in her weight class three years in a row (2005, 2006, 2007).

She was voted U.S. Weightlifter of the Year in 2006 and 2007. She holds all the American records in the 63-kilogram weight class and the snatch record in the 69-kilogram class and won a bronze medal at last year's Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

At one meter 60 centimeters, Natalie does not look like she could lift the weight she does. She attributes her success to technique and speed, not just to strength. But Woolfolk adds she also puts in a lot of time at the gym.

"There are a lot of girls who are a lot stronger than I am," she said. "But - and that's the thing that is awesome about Olympic style weightlifting - that with technique and speed you can really maneuver the bar in a certain way and it just kind of lifts itself up there. But I practice really, really hard though. That's the other thing. We have practice five days a week, three times a day. I am in the gym all the time and I work really hard too."

Natalie's life is not all workouts and sweat, though. She started a cooking club at the Training Center, and she brags about her lasagna. She also loves to play the word game "Catch Phrase" where players try to describe something without using the name of the actual object. As the Olympics approach, though, Natalie's focus is sharply on winning a medal.

Her father Kirk, plans to attend the Games and told VOA Sports that he did not become nervous about her success until Natalie made the team.

"I wasn't really anxious about it until the [U.S.] trials were over," he said. "And when it was all over and it was a done deal and she had made the team, and I really realized 'hey she is an Olympian.' And they draped the flag over her and they took some pictures and stuff and that was very touching. I was, uh, that was hard."

Natalie Woolfolk has a competitive chance in Beijing. In her weight class, her best lift is a total of 218 kilograms - 118 kilos in the clean and jerk, and 100 kilograms in the snatch. In 2004, Ukraine's Nataliya Skakun won the gold medal with a total of 242.5 kilograms.

This year, both the Greek and Bulgarian weightlifting teams have been hit by doping scandals. Woolfolk says she believes that athletes need to be responsible for their own behavior. However, she added that the World Anti-Doping Agency is needed to help keep the competition clean.

Even if she does not medal in Beijing, Natalie Woolfolk told VOA Sports that she would not trade her experience for anything. She said her teammates have become like a second family and she has had a great deal of fun. She also met her fiancé through weightlifting - she and U.S. team member Casey Burgener will be married two months after the Beijing Olympics.