He Wanted Out of the ‘Friend Zone’, but She Took the Lead

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In the summer of 2016, Andrew John Zbihley was scrolling through the Northwestern Class of 2020 Facebook page looking for a roommate when a photo of his future classmate, Olivia Natalia Pura, caught his eye.

“I noticed her profile picture was of her walking across the Miss Teen USA stage,” said Mr. Zbihley, 24. “It took only a few seconds for the realization to set in that she was way out of my league.”

But as fate would have it, both were assigned to the same dorm, Elder Hall, in September 2016, albeit different floors.

Although they lived nearby, their paths had not crossed until later that fall when they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. The trio were preparing for a chemistry midterm and decided to form a study group.

Mr. Zbihley said he was likely “sweating through my T-shirt out of nervousness. But she said, ‘Hi, I’m Olivia.’”

Three simple words that Mr. Zbihley said changed everything. “Her voice had a distinct Midwestern tune to it that took her from ‘beautiful pageant girl I would be lucky to talk to’ to ‘could be a lifelong friend if I play my cards right,’” Mr. Zbihley said.

It wasn’t long before their friendship grew so strong that, Ms. Pura, 24, said, “We were inseparable, so much so that both of our families began to wonder if there was something more beneath the surface.”

Mr. Zbihley graduated from Northwestern, magna cum laude, in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and economics. He is now a medical student at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Also a 2020 magna cum laude graduate from Northwestern, Ms. Pura has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. She is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, where she studies biochemistry and molecular biophysics.

Together, they host the “Science in Society” podcast, which debuted in June 2020. “It was Drew’s idea to start the podcast, which is about the ways in which science impacts our everyday lives,” Ms. Pura said.

In 2019, by their senior year, they gradually made it out of the friend zone. But it wasn’t Mr. Zbihley who made the first move.

“While I was scared of the prospect of potentially losing a true best friend for life if things didn’t work out, I had a gut feeling it would be worth the effort should we develop feelings for each other,” Mr. Zbihley said.

That fall, he invited Ms. Pura to a Friendsgiving. “She returned the favor by inviting me to a concert,” Mr. Zbihley said. During that evening with friends, on Nov. 23, 2019, “Liv made the first move,” he said. “As she will quickly point out, I would never have done so, and she’s right.”

At Spybar Chicago, in the middle of the crowded club, Ms. Pura pulled Mr. Zbihley in for what would be their very first kiss.

“It was the ‘aha’ moment for both of us to realize that there were a lot of feelings between us that we hadn’t been fully aware of,” Ms. Pura said. “I had definitely thought about it before. I had those little butterflies about it. Once we each realized that our feelings were reciprocated, it was all excitement.” 

Their first official date was on Mr. Zbihley’s birthday, Dec. 4, 2019. “We went to the largest Starbucks Reserve in the world in downtown Chicago where we treated ourselves to a flight of coffee and chocolate pairings followed by a round of coffee-inspired cocktails before enjoying a movie later that evening,” Ms. Pura said.

Even before that date, Ms. Pura said, “I knew Drew was ‘the one’ years before we started dating. From our freshman year in college, I felt in my heart that Drew would be a special presence in my life. He would be someone that remained one of my closest, truest friends for decades after graduation.”

A few short months after their first date, the Covid pandemic emerged.

In March 2020, the pair left for spring break and headed to Pittsburgh to visit Mr. Zbihley’s family. “While we were there, it was announced that the remainder of the school year would be remote,” Ms. Pura said. So, they ended up staying in Pittsburgh for about a month. The following month they stayed with Ms. Pura’s family at her parent’s rental property in Bradenton, Fl. for about three weeks.

The abrupt halt to their lives at school allowed them to deepen their relationship.

“We ended up spending every waking moment with each other, learning to lean on each other,” Mr. Zbihley said. “We went from the ‘honeymoon’ dating phase to seeing each other at our ugliest.” It was something he had never experienced with anyone else before.

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“There were a lot of fun times,” Mr. Zbihley said. “A lot of the day-to-day responsibilities went away so we played a lot of Pokeman. You learn a lot about a person when your patience is tested. That really cemented a lot of my feelings for her.”

It cemented feelings for Ms. Pura, too. “It was then that I first seriously thought to myself, ‘Drew is the man that I want to marry,’” Ms. Pura said.

“Going through Covid and already being friends really accelerated our conversations,” she said. “Clearly there’s always going to be something bigger than us and that put our own problems in perspective. Seeing how we challenged each other was really exciting.”

In the fall of 2020, Ms. Pura was the reigning Miss Illinois USA 2020, having been crowned in September 2019. As the pandemic began to level out, her preparations for Miss USA began. “My life suddenly shifted from days spent binge-watching ‘Tiger King’ to juggling my Ph.D., the ongoing pandemic, a new puppy, and getting ready for a nationally televised competition,” Ms. Pura said.

Ms. Pura placed in the top 10 at the pageant, which was held at the Graceland Exhibition Center in Memphis on Nov. 9, 2020.

It was after that competition that the two began to talk about marriage more seriously. “It’s like a sunrise, you feel like this warmth and knowledge and peace come over you,” Mr. Zbihley said. “You don’t really realize it until it’s there. But once it’s there, you know.”

The two attended graduate schools in the same location starting in the fall of 2020. She was accepted into the University of Chicago for her Ph.D. and he into the Feinberg School of Medicine. They lived together in Mr. Zbihley’s apartment in Chicago.

During their Spring semester of that first year, Mr. Zbihley agreed to a couple’s photo shoot, which Ms. Pura had been asking him to do, when he realized what a perfect guise that would be for a proposal. He suggested a springtime shoot at their alma mater.

On May 2, 2021, about 45 minutes into the shoot, their photographer, in on the surprise and even taking credit for bringing along a videographer for fun, suggested they move to Northwestern’s Shakespeare Garden. So, the team made their way to the quiet little oasis tucked in the middle of campus.

Ms. Pura had packed her favorite shoes for the shoot, black combat boots. But Mr. Zbihley had secretly packed a pair of bright pink Crocs as well, with Jibbitz charms spelling out “Mrs. Z?”. While she was talking to the photographer about the new setup, Mr. Zbihley came up from behind Ms. Pura, tapped her on the shoulder, and offered her the two options. She chose the Crocs.

They celebrated with both of their families, who Mr. Zbihley had secretly invited, at a local Italian restaurant.

On July 2, 2022, the day before Ms. Pura’s 24th birthday, the couple were married by the Rev. Adam C. Potter, a Roman Catholic priest from Mary, Mother of God Parish in McKeesport and White Oak, Pa. About 200 guests attended the wedding at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh, with the reception in the Carnegie Music Hall Foyer. The latter of which, Ms. Pura said, “Felt like something out of a Disney Princess movie — regal, romantic and grand.”

The couple also opted for a first touch rather than a first look. “We wanted the first look when we walked down the aisle, so we got to touch hands and talk but not look,” Mr. Zbihley said.

“As soon as Liv popped out,” he continued, “my heart felt like it was beating three feet out of my chest. I was rocking back and forth. My excitement was manifesting in my body. I had a smile I could not wipe off my face. It was magical. When we recited our vows that was like an out of body experience.”

Ms. Pura added, “Once I started walking down the aisle it was like a switch flipped. It was like going into a dream state.”

On This Day

When July 2, 2022

Where St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh

Cookies Galore In Pittsburgh, it is traditional to have not only a wedding cake but also a cookie table. “No more than a dozen friends and family made 3,000 cookies, including pizzelle, pierniki, and lady locks,” Mr. Zbihley said. “It was a big display — 32 feet of table.”

Elvis Has Entered the Building Ms. Pura’s youngest brother, Patrick Pura, 16, served as one of the groomsmen. He also surprised the couple by playing the Elvis Presley favorite, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” on the piano after the cake cutting. The song was a nod, Ms. Pura said, “to when I competed in Miss USA at Graceland.”

A Nod to Her Motherland Ms. Pura is a first-generation Polish American, and many of her wedding guests were as well. To honor her family’s homeland, the couple had bilingual signage throughout the reception, played some classic Polish party songs, and included traditional Polish treats on their cookie table.

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