Just over two weeks later was the first real test of the new chemical aids and the first time I could pinpoint their effectiveness: The Metropolitan Weightlifting Championships. Though only a local meet, in Rickey’s eyes this was a competition on par with a major continental championship, even though the caliber of athletes varied—significantly—from weight class to weight class every year. There was always a fair chance that your class might only have one or two other lifters, in which case you were all but guaranteed to place so long as you didn’t bomb out.
“A medal is still a medal,” Ricky would occasionally say in response to this. Although he’d sometimes contradict himself moments later by saying that medals didn’t matter if you lifted like shit…
(The only area competition that outranked the Mets for Ricky were the Empire State Games. Back in the Bayonne days Al had once asked him—jokingly—whether he’d rather be Empire State Games champion or Olympic champion. Ricky, after a brief pause, had responded: “What year we talkin’?”)
The Metropolitan Championships were held at Lost Battalion Hall in Rego Park, Queens, which meant an early start to the day for those of us going. In the wee hours of the morning, before the sun had yet risen, Pete and I woke and groggily prepped our supplies for the day: shoes, singlets, tape, protein bars, Advil, creatine, Gatorade, a box of Oatmeal Squares for snacking. And, of course, we each tossed back a few little pink pentagons before heading out the door…
We picked up Libby and then left New Brunswick for the Turnpike up to Ricky’s house. When we arrived I was about to give the horn a light tap—to let him know we were waiting—when the front door flew open and Ricky came bounding down the steps, his old duffel bag thrown over his shoulder and swinging about wildly as he ran.
“Who’s ready for the Mets?!”
“Oh Jesus…” said Pete.
His voice was booming—terribly, offensively loud. Certainly far too loud for something shouted across the lawn at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. People in neighboring houses were no doubt wondering why some idiot was screaming questions like that at an hour when the sun was still below the horizon.
But Ricky was certainly up, and he cared little for what his neighbors thought of him and his antics. He cried this question to us from a good fifteen feet away, as he jogged from his house to my car.
“You think he slept at all?” asked Pete.
“I think he was up all night watching VHS tapes of every past Met Championship in history,” I said.
“He looks… excited,” said Libby.
Ricky threw his bag in my trunk and then came around to knock on Pete’s window. “Whaddaya doin’?” he asked. “I’m the coach, I get the front seat.”
Pete rolled the window down a crack. “Seat’s taken.”
“What! I can’t believe this! Kicked outta my rightful spot by my own athlete. How you gonna like counting for yourself at the meet?” He shook his head and walked to the rear of the car.
“You believe this?” he said to Libby in the back seat.
“Puj you been up all night gettin’ ready for the Met?” asked Pete.
“You nuts? I was in bed at 9:30. Left work to make sure I could get to bed early. You don’t mess around with a meet like this. Now let’s go! You guys gotta weigh in. You clowns gonna make weight or what?”
“I’ll make weight,” said Pete.
“Yeah? What about you Jonathan?”
“I’ll make the 85s,” I said.
“What? No way. You gotta be 77 here. Libby what about you?”
“Seventy-five on the dot last night. I’ll be fine.”
“Atta girl,” said Ricky. “You hear that? That’s somebody who knows how to make weight.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, pulling onto the highway toward the city. “I’ll have Pete help out at weigh ins.”
Making weight had been a challenge almost as formidable as lifting the barbell for almost as long as I’d been competing. Unable to endure a long cut or the rigors of clean eating, I instead opted for last minute efforts of incredible foolishness: fasting for 24-hours with only sips of water or ice cubes; sitting in cars wearing multiple winter jackets and the heater on full blast; the occasional laxative to get things moving… I’d arrive at weigh ins hungry and exhausted, feeling like something spectral and wasted, as though I were a shadow or a projection of my being rather than the real thing.
For my entire lifting career every time I’d starve or sweat myself to 64 or 70 or—ultimately—77 kilos I swore it was the last time, that I’d learned my lesson and would train lighter, that I’d do a long, easy cut. This was never the case. In retrospect I think some part of me needed to cut weight in this fashion, as though the fasting and sweating sharpened my responses and actions and gave the competition a gravitas that it might otherwise have lacked.
But ultimately I simply gave up cutting weight for most competitions, barring Nationals and the occasional local meet. For the Mets that year my cutting consisted of a somewhat lighter than normal dinner and skipping breakfast, which felt like a tremendous sacrifice in the moment. I was at least two or three kilos over and I knew this was unlikely to be sufficient but I was willing to risk it.
“How far is the drive?” asked Libby.
“‘Bout an hour,” said Ricky. “Hour and a half maybe if there’s traffic. You never been to LBH before?”
She shook her head.
Ricky leaned forward and popped his head between the two front seats. “You guys tell her about LBH?”
“We didn’t wanna put her to sleep,” said Pete.
“You kiddin’?!” He leaned back and looked at Libby, his expression a mix of shock and excitement. This was his chance to do the one thing he liked almost as much as lifting, which was to talk about lifting…
In Ricky’s estimation Lost Battalion Hall was the sport’s Mecca—and he spent a good part of the drive that morning expounding upon this to Libby. He spoke like some deranged orator from Ancient Greece, enumerating points of history and famous personages in a manner connected by only the loosest of threads. His conversation ranged, without clear purpose, from LBH’s founding in the 1960s to the great American athletes who trained there to a discourse on how its location in New York City made it a natural destination for top foreign athletes newly arrived in the US. He did all this with little regard for her occasional dozing off or for the fact that we spent twenty minutes going the wrong way since he’d failed to attend to his duties as navigator.
“You know Krastev snatched 210 here?” he said, still talking when we arrived at the Lost Battalion Rec Center, a nondescript red brick building on Queens Boulevard.
“Bullshit!” said Pete.
“That’s what they say!”
“Did you start that rumor?” I asked.
“Mighta been. Anyways, some of the best athletes in the world trained here, is my point,” he said to Libby.
The competition was held in the basement, a slightly under-lit space with linoleum flooring and a yellowed cast of age to everything. A platform was set up in the main space, along with a few rows of folding chairs, and to the right—separated by a curtain partition—was the warmup area. The total absence of windows or natural light made it feel as though you were standing in a bunker, and it wasn’t long before you started to feel as though vitamin D supplementation might be a good idea…
Aside from us the only other people there were some of the organizers and a few scattered athletes: a tiny kid in a singlet that looked several sizes too big; an old man with a handlebar mustache and a singlet several sizes too small; a middle-aged lifter walking around in his underwear, which looked nearly as yellowed as the basement itself.
“Don’t get intimidated by all this greatness, Libby,” said Pete. “Remember they’re just normal people. They put their pants on one leg at a time.”
“Or not at all, apparently,” she said, referring to the pants-less guy, who was now spinning in a circle very slowly with his arms outstretched, in what looked like some strange and ungraceful mimicry of ballet.
“It’s still early,” said Ricky. He then turned to Libby. “This place got history,” he said. “You win the Mets today, you’re a part of a long history of great lifting here.”
“Are there any other girls in my class?”
“Ain’t the point,” he said. “But no, I don’t think so.”
An old referee who’d been sleeping in a chair by the platform and who looked like five miles of unmade bed roused himself awake. When he gazed about he seemed surprised to find himself in these surroundings but he ultimately stood up all the same, as though resigned to make do with whatever world in which he’d woken up.
“We’re going to start the weigh ins for the first men’s session,” he said in a thin voice, and began shuffling off to the room where the scale was located.
Pete and I dropped our bags and went to follow him.
“Wish me luck,” I said to Ricky. Then turning to Pete I whispered: “Stay close in there. I may need a little boost.”
[more to come]