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From Garage Gym to Beijing - Weightlifter Casey Burgener Makes Olympic Debut

American weightlifter Casey Burgener will be making his Olympic debut in Beijing. He edged out four other super heavyweights to clinch the third and final spot on the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team. Burgener has two U.S. national titles, and last year he won a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Brazil. VOA's Teresa Sullivan has more on this first-time Olympian from southern California.

U.S. Olympic weightlifter Casey Burgener more aptly fits the image of a modern renaissance man than a stereotypical strong-man.

True, Burgener is big, and muscular, and very strong. The super heavyweight athlete stands 186 centimeters tall, and weights 125 kilograms. With his shaved head, stubbled beard and intense glare, Burgener indeed looks like he could easily, if not happily, crush, kill, and destroy if he fancied the notion.

But while Burgener acknowledges his weightlifter's physique and "game face" can be intimidating at times, he shrugs off the cliché characterization of "brutish gym rat."

"I think I'm probably more laid back than people think," he says. " I know a lot of times when people meet me they think I'm going to tear them to pieces, like right away. But it probably helps the image of being strong, but for me as a person, I don't know, I don't really think it really makes a difference."

Despite his size and strength, Burgener has a somewhat lighter side. He says he listens to classical or instrumental music when training for a competition because it helps him to remain calm.

Down time includes reading, music

Besides athletics, Casey plays the guitar, has an interest in art, and enjoys reading. He says his favorite novels are the classics 1984 - a cautionary political allegory by British author George Orwell; and Crime and Punishment -19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky's tale of moral and existential themes.

Casey recently earned a Bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Colorado. The campus is in Colorado Springs, which is home to the Olympic Training Center where Burgener lives and trains.

Wedding bells on the horizon

The center also is where Burgener met the love of his life. He is engaged to fellow Olympic weightlifter, Natalie Woolfolk. The couple is planning a November wedding at Burgener's home in California.

Casey caught Natalie completely by surprise when he proposed after the world championships last year in Thailand. He popped the question (will you marry me?) and presented Woolfolk with an engagement ring as they were riding through the jungle atop an elephant.

Athletics are a family affair in the Burgener household. Casey's father played (American-style) football at Notre Dame University (in the midwest state of Indiana) and is a retired high school strength and conditioning coach. His mother played collegiate basketball. Burgener's two younger brothers, Beau and Cody, also are into sports, and his 18-year-old sister, Sage, is working to become an elite-level weightlifter.

Casey says his interest in sports started at a young age.

"My father got me involved with weightlifting when I was 12, and it was to basically to help me develop and help me with other sports," Casey explained. "But, I took to it pretty well, and it came kind of naturally, so I just started doing weightlifting by itself after that." From garage to Olympics With his father, Mike, as his coach, Burgener grew up training in his parents' garage. But this was no ordinary garage. A few years after Casey was born, his father converted the family's two-car garage into a Regional Training Center for USA Weightlifting that teaches Olympic-style lifting. Weightlifters come from far and wide to "Mike's Garage" to train for the Olympics and to become better athletes.

With his athletic talents, university degree and cultural interests, Casey Burgener will no doubt have many choices for a career when he finally retires from international competition. He says he believes his experience as a weightlifter will benefit him in whatever path he chooses in life.

"I think the one thing that weightlifting probably teaches, or has taught me, more than anything else, is hard work and discipline, and I think that applies to any career," he said.

China, Russia pose biggest challenge

Although Burgener believes the U.S. weightlifters are good, he is pragmatic about their chances of gold medal glory in Beijing, particularly against such powerhouse teams as Russia and host China.

"The U.S. really is not a dominating force with weightlifting," he noted. "I know that everyone is going to go and perform to their maximal potential. But in terms of placement, and stuff - I don't know - medals are not really a likely prospect, but you never know what is going to happen."

This will be Casey Burgener's first time at the Olympics, but not his first trip to Beijing, China. Early this year, he competed in the "Good Luck Beijing" Olympic test event, and finished in fourth place.

"I was in Beijing in January and I thought it was incredible. The people, and the meet conditions - and everything was great," he said.

With or without a medal from the Beijing Games, life holds many interesting possibilities for Casey Burgener: husband-to-be, physicist, math geek, guitar player, and Olympic weightlifter.