March 01, 2012

The doctor told her she may never be able to squat below parallel again.

2008 United States Olympic weightlifter Natalie Burgener had hip surgery last May after she sustained a severe tear during a squat. While catastrophic injuries like Burgener's tear are common in team sports, especially for female athletes, they are rare in weightlifting. Lifters typically sustain injuries from overuse, like Burgener's two knee injuries in the past two years; while rehabilitating from her hip surgery, she underwent relatively common "clean up" knee surgeries to fix the problems. The hip surgery she underwent in May was much more career threatening.

"I went into the surgery knowing that I had to get it done, but not knowing if weightlifting was a possibility afterward," Burgener said.

After six months of twice-a-day rehab Burgener returned to competitive weightlifting at the American Open Championships on Dec. 2. The 63 kg (139 lbs.) competitor easily won her weight class, completing all of the lifts she attempted and totaling 205 kg. She is now eligible to compete in the Olympic team trials on March 4. With only two female weightlifters representing the U.S. in London, she knows that the road back to the Olympic Games won't be an easy one.

"I've grown to know its never going to feel fantastic, but it feels as good as it's going to feel," Burgener said of her hip. Since weightlifters from every weight class will be competing for the two available Olympic spots Burgener knows she's have to be at her best on Sunday. Lifters that score the highest percent of a total based on past world championship scores from their respective weight class will earn the trip to London. That means Burgener needs to total at least 210 kg to have a shot at qualifying -- and may need to lift even more weight. When she finishes lifting she won't know if she's qualified for the 2012 Games until the heavier girls also complete the competition.

"I need to be in the best shape of my life to make the team," said Burgener, who totaled 211 kg at the Beijing Olympics. Her career best is 215 kg, but her highest total since the surgeries is 210 kg.

"I think I'm ready," she said. "I'm strong and I've put in the work."

The work started for Burgener, then known as Natalie Woolfolk, at age 16. Her athletic career started out with gymnastics, but she peaked when she was16 ("as gymnasts do," she said). Her father Kirk Woolfolk, a strength coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, convinced her to start Olympic-style weightlifting training. At first Natalie was reluctant to make the switch. Most teenage girls have enough self-confidence issues without looking like a bodybuilder, but after Woolfolk showed his daughter a picture of 53 kg (117 lbs.) weightlifter Melanie Roach -- who Natalie described as "super cute" -- she changed her mind.

By 2001 Burgener was living in the Olympic Training Center, at just 18 years old. Little did she know that she would start dating and eventually marry a fellow weightlifter also living at the OTC at that time.

Natalie met weightlifter Casey Burgener in 2001 at the Junior Nationals competition in Charleston, Illinois, but they didn't start dating until later that year when they were both living in the OTC in Colorado Springs. Much of Natalie and Casey's life together has been spent in within the walls of the OTC.

"It's pretty much ideal. It sounds bad that we're married and living in a dorm room, but really if you saw where we lived it's more like an apartment," Natalie said. "I've always been a big supporter of this place."

Throughout their time at the OTC, Casey and Natalie were fortunate enough to compete on the same Pan American and World teams. The one huge exception: the 2008 Olympics.

Natalie was named to the 2008 Olympic team after winning national championships from 2005-2007, and Casey was expected to be the third and final male Olympic qualifier from the U.S. An unofficial agreement was reached to have Casey, who did not attempt to place higher than third since at the time he knew that's all he needed to do to earn an Olympic spot, according to Natalie.

However, after other countries' lifters produced positive drug tests, the outcome of a qualifying event was changed, and the U.S. was only granted two slots for male weightlifters. Unfortunately, Team USA was not informed of this until the day before the Olympic opening ceremonies.

"It was terrible to say the least," said Natalie. "We thought that it was in stone that we had three spots, but I guess it wasn't," explained Natalie.

Casey, who had made the trip to Beijing under the impression that he would be competing, was not allowed in the Olympic Village with his future wife.

"I don't know if there's anything that could add or take away from how 2008 felt," said Casey, who admitted that he's a long shot to be a 2012 Olympian since the U.S. will probably only send one male weightlifter to London.

After Natalie's biggest career moment and Casey's huge disappointment, the couple took a break from competition and moved to California, where they both worked as assistant strength coaches at the University of San Diego. After so many years of nonstop training -- weightlifting does not have an offseason since even one week away from training can set a competitor back -- it was time for a break.

"It's hard to leave; it becomes such as lifestyle," Burgener said. "I wanted to come back and win a medal."

Natalie and Casey returned to the OTC in January, but there weren't as many Olympic-hopeful residents as when the pair first started living there. While Casey acknowledges that "some people would be great if they trained in the Mountains of Siberia" he needs the competitive push from other U.S. weightlifters like Shane Hamman and Oscar Chaplin, who trained with him before the 2008 Olympics.

Natalie has even fewer quality training partners than her husband. There are female lifters living at the OTC who are aiming at future Olympics, but Natalie is the only one who has her sights set on 2012.

"Natalie is almost alone here," said 70-year-old U.S. weightlifting coach Zygmunt Smalcerz, a 4-9 former weightlifter who won the 1972 Flyweight (115 lbs.) Olympic weightlifting gold medal for Poland and still sports a six-pack. "There's not enough numbers, especially in the girls' division."

Smalcerz has only been working with Natalie for a year and a half, but he was immediately impressed by her determination to come back from hip surgery. According to the coach, Natalie is America's best shot at a medal in 2012 because of her "beautiful" form. Natalie admits that being shut out of the medals in 2008 was one of the primary reasons for her return to the sport.

Natalie knows she must stay healthy to compete at the 2012 Games. After an injury-riddled comeback she's out of time for errors, but both Natalie and her coach say she's 100 percent healthy now and just needs to keep preparing. Smalcerz can ramble on in his thick Polish accent about Natalie's form, training habits and determination, but he only had once sentence for why he thought Burgener had the best shot to bring a medal home to the United States.

"She will be ready physically and mentally to get it," he said.

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