A comfortable rhythm developed in the days and weeks that followed, as we left winter behind and crawled toward spring and ultimately summer. We trained, we hung out together, we shared embarrassing stories late into the night, we made plans for the months to come until the early hours of the morning.
A string of random recollections survive from those days and weeks, often with no clear chronology or context, as if that entire period were little more than vignettes and flashbulb memories—memories I can call to mind now with photographic clarity. Watching my blurry VHS copy of the legendary School of Champions documentary about the Bulgarian team in the 1980s, with Krastev’s then-unbroken 216-kilo World Record Snatch (“He looks like a giant Super Mario,” Libby’d said). Taking the train in to the city and then the A line all the way up to the 190 Street Station, where we walked through the gardens at the Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River. A late-night tryst in the library, trying to contain our giggles and our excitement amid the mostly empty stacks. A midweek drive to the beach, long before it was beach weather, just to feel the sand on our bare feet and see the ocean.
One night we went to Efe’s in downtown New Brunswick for some Mediterranean food after training. When we learned the owners and workers were from Turkey we engaged them in a long discussion of the country, which was where the Worlds were being held later that year. This was our common goal, and we’d already pledged to each other that we must make the team. In speaking such an oath we hoped to make it real, or at least more likely. In the gym this became our target, and when one or the other was struggling we’d offer a subtle reminder of this. The name alone of the competition city—Antalya—was sometimes enough to bring us back from a failed lift.
But on occasion it was more than just a competition goal.
“Let’s travel around Turkey,” she said one night in bed, long after we should have been sleeping.
We rarely spoke of future plans that didn’t directly involve lifting; indeed we’d never even given a name to whatever was between us. This utterance, said in the early hours of the morning after a Saturday of training and eating and hanging out, was the first time she’d hinted at our existence together at some future date.
“Where?” I asked, wanting details, clarification, anything on which to peg my hopes.
“Everywhere,” she said.
“I don’t know,” she said, laughing and turning toward me. “Wherever. We’ll rent a car and just… drive. Drive up the coast, drive to the beaches, drive to Istanbul.”
“Okay,” I said, and meant it. Had she asked I would have handed over money, credit cards—anything, really. Anything to secure that vision of the future, she and I driving around a country we could only just find on the globe, experiencing the new and unknown together. In my mind’s eye I had visions of us amid ancient ruins and on vast beaches in the Mediterranean, eating kebabs and doing whatever else one did in Turkey.
“And from there we can go to Greece, and Italy,” she said, almost a whisper, perhaps more asleep than awake.
She nodded. “Just keep traveling.”
“Check out your sibyl on the ceiling,” I responded.
But she was already sleeping.
In mid-May, when the weather was already warm, Pete and Libby and I graduated—though for me this bore little significance, and it left no impression on my memory. Pete and I didn’t attended the ceremony. All I can recall are a few parties hosted by friends and the families of friends, and those but dimly. I’d spent longer in college than I’d anticipated and its completion seemed an insignificant thing; thousands of others graduated with me that year, as they did every year, and our degrees signified little more than a rudimentary amount of perseverance and the ability to write checks or take out loans. All the celebrating, all the congratulations, all the hoopla, as if we’d done something of real importance, all of this not only confused me but angered me, at moments. Who cared about making it through college, something millions of people did all the time? How many of them could snatch 130? How many had won a National medal, or made a World Team? Those were things to celebrate, things worth congratulating. The shenanigans around the spring rite of graduation felt like false rituals and false celebrations, so common were they.
Was this the test propionate talking? Was it simply my own frustration at having missed out, until then, at goals that mattered to me? Whatever its origin, I couldn’t properly celebrate this passage. Pete and I enjoyed the free food at the parties, and we bid farewell to class schedules, but otherwise things were much the same, only that we now had to travel to FDU nearly every day for training.
“Better that way!” Ricky had said in response to this. “Means I can keep an eye on yous.”
It’s hard to deny this. Training together, under the constant eyes of Ricky and Nikos and Russ and our fellow teammates, we entered into what felt like a Golden Age of weightlifting. Like the Americans in the 1950s or the Bulgarians of the 80s or the Greeks of the 90s. There was some primal energy that coursed through the gym, feeding a little more life into each of us as we prepared for Nationals (and beyond). How else to explain certain lifts that stand out in my memory? Lifts like Myron’s 150 snatch, done on little more than a dare by Ricky—who doubted he would make 145, let alone five kilos above that.
“He’s a mutant,” Joe had said in watching this lift.
Yet Myron, for all the awe in that room—this was the most we’d seen snatched in the gym in a long while, perhaps ever—looked no different. He set the bar down and regarded it as if it were something illusory or inconsequential, and he gave no indication that his attitude was different from the last attempt or indeed from an attempt with an unloaded barbell.
Impressed as he was, Ricky couldn’t let this stand. In response, he took an enormous 170 clean, to make up for the fact that Myron had out-snatched him by ten kilos.
“Clean and jerks win meets,” he’d said, while liberally greasing up his thighs with cheap lotion.
“You gonna do that in competition, Puj?” Pete had asked, nodding toward the lotion.
“Don’t worry about what I’m gonna do in competition. We ain’t in a competition now, are we? Ain’t no law against a little lotion on the thighs, is there?”
“No there ain’t.”
Although perhaps there should have been. The barbell positively shot off of Ricky’s glowing thighs, nearly catching him in the throat and knocking him off balance. The weight then crashed on him, almost knocking him into the platform. How he then managed to stand up with it seemed a miracle, as though some god of weightlifting—taking pity on this lifter from a different era—reached down and pulled him up like a puppeteer drawing up a shaggy marionette. We all stood in shock, waiting for the jerk, but Ricky, in a rare moment of clarity, simply dumped the barbell and extended his arms wide in a gesture strangely reminiscent of certain paintings of Christ. Like he was reaching out to hug the room entire. He looked around at us, smiling.
“Not bad,” said Myron. “What about the jerk?”
“Savin’ that for when it counts,” he responded, still grinning.
Then there was my own 130 snatch, executed in a training session during which I felt to have been touched by preternatural lifting ability. I didn’t miss a single lift that day, and when the 130 went overhead it seemed as though the barbell was willingly returning to its right place in the universe, like it had wanted to be there all along and I’d simply guided it home.
“Finally!” I shouted, standing with the weight overhead and feeling not just strong but invincible, as though that triumph against gravity could inure me against whatever might come my way. I heard the cries of my fellow lifters and the shouts of my coaches and I thought that this is something worth celebrating. The high-fives and congrats and hugs that came afterward were worth a thousand college graduations, and that lift remains in my memory the way some people recall absent lovers.
“That was fuckin’ beautiful,” said Ricky afterward, beaming like a proud parent. “But don’t get too happy. You still got a lot more in you.”
“Nice work,” said Libby, giving me a quick hug. Was there jealousy? I wondered. She’d struggled that day, missing several attempts at 100 kilos in the snatch. It was a huge weight—“The weight that makes you a man,” Ricky’d said once—and though she looked strong enough she couldn’t secure it overhead. The first attempt had been out front.
“Pull,” said Nikos in response. “Don’t place barbell.”
The second was closer but still out front.
“More up!” said Nikos, imitating the full extension of the pull. “You are strong! Use muscles!”
She nodded, as did Ricky and Russ in agreement.
But the third and fourth attempts, done amidst the solemn silence of the gym watching one of our own do a world-class weight, were not there. Each one was close but lacked the final spark. She’d made 97.5 beautifully just before, but the extra 2.5 kilos, or perhaps the number 100 itself, had wormed its way into her mind.
“Enough,” said Nikos. “Another time.”
I saw her frustration and felt it with her. But a moment later she was back to her platform, focused on her own lifting and seemingly unaware of the world around her and already past the failures of the morning.
[more to come]