Weightlifting: Weight on her shoulders

Matt Forman

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When most high school seniors are searching for colleges, proximity to an elite weightlifting training facility is not a main concern.

Northwestern freshman Natalie Friend’s father gave her only two options: train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., or go to NU and train with fitness guru Mike Gattone. Since making the decision, Friend has excelled as a weightlifter and student.

Friend won the USA Weightlifting National Junior Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn., on February 9. She lifted 80 kilograms in the snatch, and 102 kgs in the clean and jerk. She was named the competition’s “Best Lifter” due to her total of 182 kgs.

In the snatch, Friend does an explosive move where she lifts the bar from the floor to over her head in less than one second. An 80 kg snatch translates to lifting 176 pounds, or slightly less than NU star running back Tyrell Sutton.

The clean and jerk is a two-part move, in which Friend lifts the bar from the floor to her shoulders, pauses for a second and then punches the bar over her head. Friend’s 102 kg clean and jerk is equivalent to lifting about 225 pounds, the same weight Wildcats football coach Pat Fitzgerald played at when he won two Bednarik Awards as the nation’s best defensive player in 1995 and ’96.

While weightlifting may be foreign to many, it can also be confusing to one of the nation’s best young lifters. Even Friend isn’t exactly sure how the title of “best lifter” is decided.

“Best lifter is based on this formula that no one really understands because it’s so complicated,” Friend said. “It’s basically comparing weight classes together and who is the best lifter kilo for kilo. That’s the real test.”

And Friend’s 182 kgs (402 lbs.) total, essentially the equivalent of lifting one and a half times the average NU lineman, impressed Gattone, her training coach.

“That was just tremendous weights,” said Gattone, who owns and operates the Windy City Weightlifting Club, where Friend trains in Buffalo Grove, Ill. “That was far and away above anyone in her weight class at the junior level.”

Lifters younger than 20 years old are considered juniors in the weightlifting circuit. This was Friend’s last year of qualifying to compete at National Juniors.

Gattone has a significant background in strength and conditioning. He’s spent more than 20 years in the field, earning the status as a senior international coach. Gattone spent three years as the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Chicago Bulls in the late 90s. He’s served as the competition manager for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Gattone also trained 2000 Olympic Gold Medal-winning weightlifter Tara Knott, the first woman to win gold in the sport. Gattone hopes Friend is his next Olympic gold medalist.

So how does someone with no family history in weightlifting develop into one of the nation’s best young lifters, let alone get started in the sport?

Friend ran track in middle school, but when she wanted to improve her jump distances and explosiveness, her coach sent her to the weight room. From there, with hard work and a dedicated training schedule, Friend continued improving in the sport she loves.

“I’ve always hated team sports,” Friend said. “So that’s why I liked track – you can just focus on what you do. You get to take responsibility for what you do and don’t get to blame other people. So, at a weightlifting meet it’s really just you on the platform with no one else there to help you. That’s why I like it.”

But Friend said something else also drew her to weightlifting.

“Besides that, it’s the best sport in the world,” Friend said, “I knew I could go a lot farther in it than I could in track. I love it.”

Because of her intense desire to lift weights and improve, Friend makes the 45-minute drive to Buffalo Grove to train with Gattone every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Four days a week Friend trains between two and two and a half hours, which is can be hard with classes, she said.

Despite that, Friend challenges herself academically. She anticipates double majoring in linguistics and philosophy, while balancing time spent in the classroom with training.

“I keep it simple,” Friend said. “All I do really is sleep, train and go to classes. I guess maybe I’m giving up free time or something.”

After training last Wednesday, Friend sat in a chair at Gattone’s desk reading The Wall Street Journal. Gattone joked that “You can tell she’s a Northwestern student by what she’s reading.”

Her intelligence, though, carries over into weightlifting.

“I think I have an opportunity to work with one of the best talents in the country,” Gattone said. “She’s real young, she has great explosiveness, she’s strong, and she’s intelligent. So when you tell her to change something technically, usually she can make that change. She’s really got a lot of skills that make her exciting to work with.”

Based on her performance at the National Juniors, Friend qualified for the Junior Worlds in June. She also will compete at the Collegiate Championships in early April, representing NU.

But in the extended future the sky is the limit, Gattone said.

“2012 (Olympics) candidate for sure, and probable 2016 candidate given she won’t even be 30. If (the Olympics are) in Chicago, how cool would that be? At her age, anything is possible.”

While most Northwestern students wouldn’t sacrifice free time for success, Friend hasn’t known anything else.

After all, Friend said, “Doesn’t everybody dream of going to the Olympics someday?”