PITTSBURGH -- They met in the University of Miami training room, a romance sparked by bone spurs and ankle sprains.
It was August 2013, and Anthony Chickillo was a promising defensive lineman visibly upset his heavily-taped ankle would keep him out of camp.
"I told him, 'It won’t kill you, you're good,'" said Alysha Newman, now a world-class pole vaulter for Canada.
An athletic power couple was born, for better or worse.
That training room session set the stage for a relationship built on love, strengthened by admiration but hindered by personal goals.
Chickillo, in his fourth season as an outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was predestined to play football. His father, Tony, and grandfather, Nick, both played in the league. Chickillo beating Tampa Bay tackle Donovan Smith off the edge for a sack Monday night in his hometown was the byproduct of two decades playing the game.
But while Chickillo pores over game film each week, Newman is getting world-class treatment five hours away in Toronto or traveling the world for modeling shoots and Nike promotional work. She's rigorously rehabbing a partially torn patellar tendon and has the inside track for medal placement in the 2020 Olympic games. In April, she set a Commonwealth Games record by clearing 4.75 meters. She's eyeing a 5.0 mark by 2020, and despite Chickillo's 6.5 career sacks, he knows it's tough to argue who's the better athlete.
Chickillo and Newman want marriage. They want kids. And more kids. But ambition blurs visions of an extended life together.
"At times it's hard. You have to sacrifice some things, make it work," Chickillo said. "I feel like I want her to be successful in her sport. I want her to reach her goals. Whatever her plan is, I'm for that."
Those sacrifices include plenty of drives across the Canadian border, and lots of time alone. Newman schedules her training around Steelers home-game weekends, and Chickillo spends a few weeks in Toronto after the season. But Newman can't just work out anywhere. Her Olympic training center in Toronto is specific to her skill set, so she can't camp out in Pittsburgh.
Chickillo, who's signed to a restricted free-agent tender of $1.9 million this year, can't leave his team on a whim with impulsive trips north.
The separation has created friction they've worked through. After Newman withdrew from the Prefontaine Games in May for what she thought was a kneecap rupture suffered during warm-ups, Chickillo reached her by phone for support. Newman, about to be transported to medical care via helicopter, told her boyfriend, "I think you wanted this to happen so I can be [in Pittsburgh] more." Chickillo assured her that's not at all what he was thinking.
Newman admits she was frustrated and thinking the worst in the moment. But their time apart has required patience.
"It's taken a long time to figure it out, but we're stronger than we've ever been," Newman said. "If I had to choose between him and track and field, he knows I'd choose track and field. To be able to impact others with our sports, you can't duplicate that and we know that. We can't regret anything so we don't have to blame each other. Because someone is in your life doesn't mean you have to lose your dream. Since we're apart, we can be selfish all the time. This is the time we have to put as much in the bank as we can as athletes. Sometimes it’s hard to remember this is really good for us. You realize that and expect each other to pick up the slack."
With those challenges come unique perspective on each other's physical demands. Newman and Chickillo don't talk much about football schematics, but she understands speed and power. She'll let him know if she sees something in his game that he needs to improve -- such as overpowering a tackle or getting off the edge with a better angle.
Chickillo's specialty is encouraging her to maximize her ability and fight through injuries.
"It's really cool. We push each other," Chickillo said. "She's competitive. We have a lot of fun. She's really dedicated. We can talk about that with each other, things to make each other better."
Chickillo already has targeted the summer of 2020 for some time off while Newman competes in the Olympics. Chickillo watched with teammates as Newman competed in the 2016 Rio games, where she finished 17th overall and was not pleased with her performance. Since then, though, her career has taken off.
Newman wants at least two successful Olympic stints and a long Steelers career for Chickillo. Maybe by then, their sports empires will collide to form a happy home, with kids who look up to parents who did things their way.
"No matter what happens, I have a best friend who's pumped me up so many times," Newman said. "We would love for this to work out, but if it didn't, we would both be grateful. But I can't wait till we get to the point where we're successful and we can enjoy it together."